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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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

Thursday, October 19, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: “THE PERIL OF PAINGLOSS” (GIANT-SIZE WEREWOLF BY NIGHT #5, 1975)






Marvel’’s 1970s title WEREWOLF BY NIGHT proved to be the company’s second most long-lived “horror-hero” title of the decade, excelled only by TOMB OF DRACULA, one arc of which I discussed here. The WEREWOLF series was far more uneven in quality than that of the vampire count. As a result, neither fans nor critics paid a great deal of attention to the stories of Jack Russell, a modern American man laboring under a curse that changed him into a wolf-man on full-moon nights. However, on occasion the feature did yield some unique mythopoeic gems.

At the time of this story—one of two stories in the series drawn by Filipino artist Yong Montano—writer Doug Moench had been associated with the title for some time. Normally, the Werewolf stayed close to the soil of Marvel-Earth, having fights with other freakish denizens of that world—hunchbacks, vampires, other werewolves, and the occasional evil magician. But in Moench’s last long story for the feature— a story of almost forty pages, appearing in the last issue of the feature's annual edition—the writer decided to transport Jack Russell into a world like himself: alternately ruled by day and by night.

The first thirteen pages take place in Jack’s normal domain of Marvel-Earth. His friend Buck Cowan, who knows all about Jack’s unwanted transformations, suggests that they visit a renowned occultist, one with the colorful name of Joaquin Zairre. However, not only does Zairre give the duo no help in their quest for a werewolf cure, the Satanist decides to use Jack as a sacrifice to his unholy master. When the first full-moon night draws near, Zairre kidnaps both Jack and Buck and takes them to a subterranean cavern. There Zaiire plans to shoot Jack with a silver bullet as soon as he transforms into a werewolf. Apparently the sacrifice of a guy who turns hairy is just not good enough. The setup, consciously or not, emulates a pattern seen in  Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars," in that the hero is placed in a life-or-death situation just before he symbolically “dies” and is translated to another plane of  being.


To be sure, the other world in “Paingloss” comes looking for Jack rather than waiting for him to show up. Jack becomes the Werewolf, but before Zairre can fire his silver bullet, another silver device intrdues: a magical silver lasso that springs out of an underground pool and drags the hirsute hero into the water.

It’s no less typical to see scenarios in which a feature’s hero is transported to another world for the purpose of drafting him to help the “good guys” against the “bad guys.” Since Jack’s alter ego is a ravening monster who’s not particularly altruistic, Moench solves this problem by revealing, in due time, that the Werewolf's abductors actually want to put him a menagerie owned by the queen who rules the otherworld. This otherworld is named "Biphasia," and as I mentioned earlier, is explicitly identified with Jack’s own plight, conveyed through Jack’s narration: 

Like my soul, it was a place torn in two—light and darkness, intelligence and savagery.


To an extent Moench follows a pattern seen in many high-fantasy novels of the time, in which “light” is equated with goodness and “darkness” with evil. However, even in Jack’s narration, Moench qualifies this equivalence, having Jack wonder if Searland, the eternally bright half of the world of Biphasia, is truly “a place of innocence,” or if it’s really just a “mirror” to the evil of “Shadow-Realm.”


One of the two beings who abduct the werewolf is just a slightly comical mage, but the other is the “Paingloss” of the story’s title. He is an inhabitant of Shadow-Realm, which means that he looks like a negative-image of a Caucasian human, garbed more or less like a fantasy-version of a knight: his flesh, hair and clothes ebon-black and outlined in white. 


Paingloss and his mage-buddy are located in Shadow-Realm when they put the snatch on Jack, and so he remains in werewolf form while he occupies the dark side of Biphasis. However, when Paingloss tries to take his prize to Biphasia’s ruler Delandra—who lives in Searland—the Werewolf changes back into Jack Russell, just as he would in the daylight of Earth. Delandra-- who is half like a Searland denizen, half like a Shadow-Realm inhabitant-- is then pissed at her knight Paingloss for having brought back an ordinary man for her managerie. Moench states that there's a brooding love affair between Delandra and Paingloss, and that, for reasons that remain obscure, Delandra could not give Paingloss her favors until she achieved the task of bringing back a rare beast. Privately, Jack finds the queen a spoiled brat, since it's evident that she cares more about her private zoo than about an impending invasion by the Shadow-Realm. 



Though the story is a long one compared to the average Werewolf tale, there really isn’t time for more than a Cook’s Tour of Biphasia. No sooner is Jack rejected than he’s shanghaied into helping Paingloss fight his former master Sardanus. In order to give Jack a more heroic role, Paingloss asserts that Sardanus also plans to invade Earth after he gains control of Searland. 



In an oddly short climax, Paingloss and the Werewolf defeat Sardanus, after which Paingloss’ wizard sends Jack home. Jack manifests in the cavern just in time to see his friend Buck deck Zairre, who then falls into the underground pool; implicitly becoming a death-substitute for Jack Russell, much as Alcestis descended to Hades to take the place of her husband. When Zairre doesn’t come up, Buck assumes he’s drowned, but Jack privately suspects that the Satanist was sucked into the world of Biphasis. The story ends with the hapless Jack taking cold comfort in the fact that he saved the world, even though no one else will ever credit the story.


Moench’s story is far from perfect. The relatively fresh idea of having the story’s hero being abducted for a menagerie—all to serve the ego of a spoiled queen—is dropped too quickly in favor of the catchpenny menace of Sardanus. One of the more interesting visuals of Moench and Montano is that Delandra’s palace is actually a huge ark stuck in the side of a mountain, but the pace of the story won’t allow for any explanations of this, nor of the imaginative creatures called “lustrums,” albino dwarves who ride the backs of big white snails. I imagine a better story would have ensued had Moench just left out the standard “dark lord” schtick and had focused on the story on Paingloss, Delandra and her menagerie. Maybe he might have even suggested some textual reason why he chose to name his big strapping knight-warrior after Voltaire’s “Pangloss,” who becomes famous in CANDIDE from claiming to everyone that listens that they live in “the best of all possible worlds.”  Still,even though Biphasis lacks the intellectual rigor found in Middle-Earth, there is a mythopoeic level of imagination at work in this largely forgotten story-- far more, in fact, than Moench showed in his better known WEIRDWORLD stories, which I found derivative and lacking in symbolic vigor.

NARRATIVE AND SIGNIFICANT DISCOURSES

In keeping with my observations in DISCOURSES WITH LIVING SYMBOLS, I've advanced the idea that when an author who is in touch with the mythopoeic potentiality-- even if only temporarily-- he displays the greatest ability to generate discourses of symbolic density. These discourses may exist either for the author's own delectation and illumination (Kafka) or, more typically, for the entertainment and/or enlightenment of his audience.

In my essay POETRY IN MOTION PART 3 I noted how Frye made a distinction between the narrative and significant values of literary narratives. To boil Frye’s argument down to its essentials, he regarded a given element as having a “narrative value” to the extent that it functioned to play a role in the way the narrative was constructed, while a “significant value” applied to an element which was meant to serve the purpose of a pattern hypothetically extrinsic to the narrative, what is usually called “theme” or “meaning.”

This week’s “near myth” essay analyzes MAYO CHIKI, a manga derived from a Japanese “light novel” series. My analysis identified a psychological pattern of clansgression, but this pattern was largely extrinsic to the narrative in which the characters are involved. This pattern can only be deduced by looking at Jirou’s psychological quirk-- that of desiring a love-partner who bears some resemblance to his younger sister—as if it were the hidden meaning toward which the story’s events point. This, then, would be dominantly a “significant discourse," since the narrative serves the primary purpose of piecing together the story's events, after the fashion of inductive reasoning, in order to reveal a meaning. 

However, it’s possible for an author to structure his narrative not to reflect a hidden significant value, but more as a commentary on other narratives. This reflects the "top-down" approach of deductive reasoning, and I term this form a “narrative discourse.”

I touched on an example of a “narrative discourse”—albeit without this terminology -- in my essay on “The InjusticeSociety of the World,” Robert Kanigher’s first story for the Justice Society of America series in ALL-STAR COMICS. Kanigher’s tale was not the first time a superhero feature had teamed up a group of villains to oppose a hero, or group of heroes, but it seems to be the first time a comics-writer used this narrative situation to create a Carroll-esque mood of inverted values. This too stands scrutiny as a psychological pattern in my quasi-Campbellian sense. However, the reader can only apprehend the particular qualities of Kanigher's narrative by comparing them to the broad patterns of other, similar narratives.

This distinction came to mind as a result of my mediations on this week's mythcomic, which will be immediately forthcoming.

Monday, October 16, 2017

NEAR MYTHS: "MAYO CHIKI" (2010)

I've wondered on occasion if it would be possible to find much mythic material in the genre of teen humor comics. At present I haven't come across much of interest in American teen comics, but I must admit that the Japanese show a genius for infusing wacky adolescent antics with weird psychological touches.

One psychological aspect of the 2010 manga MAYO CHIKI led me to consider whether or not at least a portion of the finished story might qualify as a "mythcomic." However, MAYO CHIKI did not begin as a comic book, but as a series of light novels, which in turn were adapted to both manga and anime. Since from the first I've focused on mythcomics only if they were original to the comics-medium, MAYO CHIKI does not qualify. The novel series as a whole may comprise a literary myth, but the manga does not generate that myth, but only transmits the myth from the prose works, though some details may have changed in the translation. 

There's no reason, though, that I can't treat the manga as a "near myth," with the stipulation that it's derived from a primary source.

In some ways, MAYO CHIKI is a typical enough Japanese teen comic. It begins with a male character who is, at least on the surface of things, "average," and then creates a situation in which he's pursued by a small harem of pretty girls. 


However, in the case of MAYO's POV character, Jirou Sakimachi, he's got a biological peculiarity. He was raised by a mother who was a pro wrestler, and who, for no clear reason, constantly used Jirou as a "sandbag" (by which the translation means a "practice dummy.") In addition, his younger sister Kureha is also a wrestler, and has doled out the same punishing treatments to Jirou since she became old enough to wrestle. As a result of all this punishment, Jirou bleeds from the nose whenever he even comes into sustained contact with a female.


For some thirty years at least, it's been a well-traveled trope in Japanese culture to depict male sexual excitation in the form of nosebleeds. However, going by the dialogue in the second manga-opus, Jirou supposedly does so as an avoidance technique. "If you made bloodshed," another  character suggests to Jirou, "they'd stop hitting you, isn't it like that?" This may not be the whole truth, but the authors clearly meant it to be part of Jirou's makeup. In addition, it provides the girls in his harem with an excuse to "cure" him of his reticence toward women, while they can feel confident that he's not likely to become an aggressor. 

Further complicating the romantic drama is that the girl Jirou likes the most, Subaru Konoe, can't be seen publicly as a girl. For assorted reasons Subaru, in order to serve as butler to the heiress of a rich family, has to pretend to be male. For the bulk of the series, there are endless misunderstandings about the relationship between Jirou and Subaru, most of them revolving around the idea of "boys' love" (a particular fascination for high-school girls, it seems). In fact, Jirou's sister Kureha-- who lives with him, even though their mother is conveniently out-of-country for the whole story-- is one of the students who enthuses most about her brother being united with the supposedly male Subaru.



"The portion" I mentioned in paragraph two is the last few installments of MAYO CHIKI's conclusion. Jirou proposes to Subaru, but she has a widowed father, Nagare, who seems to hate Jirou on general principles. Nagare won't allow any marriage unless Jirou fights him, and he's a much better fighter than Jirou. The young man is forced to ask his sister Kureha to wrestle him again-- by this time, Jirou's mostly mastered his bleeding-problem-- and of course, Kureha clobbers him just as she did in the earlier practice sessions. However, though Jirou doesn't win the fight with Nagare, the younger man scores enough points that his future father-in-law has to concede him some respect, paving the way for a future wedding. To be sure, though, the authors manage to contrive a method by which Jirou doesn't entirely have to give up his "harem" in all respects.

In section 36, though, the authors choose to give Nagare a strange connection to Jirou that goes beyond the standard trope of the "heavy father." Jirou asks the older man why he hates him, and Nagare replies that Jirou reminds him of his younger self. Nagare then finds out Jirou's surname, which he's somehow avoiding learning in 36 volumes, and makes the odd revelation that he was a boyfriend to Jirou's wrestler-mother. This gives Nagare another reason to resent Jirou, because he's the child of the man who beat out Nagare for the favors of Jirou's mother. Yet it ends up meaning a little more than that.

While Nagare is in no way physically related to Jirou, the revelation that the former was at least a potential love-interest to Jirou's mother makes Nagare a "symbolic father." He thus takes the place of Jirou's deceased real father who is referenced even less than Jirou's mother. And if Nagare is Jirou's symbolic father, then Nagare's daughter is also Jirou's symbolic sister.

Though Japanese manga-works are awash with replete with numerous narratives of sibling-incest, it's not overtly suggested that Jirou has ever had a sexual response to the younger sister with whom he lives, or, for that matter, to his absent mother. He's also not an overt masochist, as he's never shown enjoying the violence Kureha wreaks upon him. But Subaru the symbolic sister may be seen as a displacement for Kureha the real sister, and possibly for the mother as well.



One cannot really interrogate the interior feelings of a fictional character, who has no depth. But one can inquire into the ways that the living authors encode certain patterns in the characters. One thing that *may* have been going on in the authors' skulls was that though they claimed that Jirou's nose-bleeding served as an avoidance-technique, they arranged things so it's not impossible to read it normatvely, as an indicator of sexual stimulation. That would mean that Jirou may have undergone some sexual stimulation through his contact with his family-members, and that this, and any masochistic stimulation, was so unwanted that it manifested in spontaneous nose-bleeds from any and all sustained contacts with females. The nose-bleeds don't stop until Jirou is united with a female whom he doesn't consider a familial transgression. And yet-- because she's a "symbolic sister"-- first seen trying to beat up Jirou when he accidentally sees her in her underwear-- one may argue that Jirou is still fulfilling the familiar pattern of sibling-incest, albeit only on a symbolic level.

In conclusion, MAYO CHIKI, even if it doesn't possess the full density of a mythcomic, seems far richer than anything one finds in the teen humor titles of America. Whether one considers that a boon or a deficit will depend on one's definition of "innocent entertainment."


Friday, October 13, 2017

MYTHCOMICS" "BEING BIZARRO" (ALL-STAR SUPERMAN #7-8, 2007)

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay To mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?== Adam's complaint to God, John Milton, PARADISE LOST.

Milton’s famous line from PARADISE LOST—essentially a more sophisticated version of the adolescent’s aggrieved cry, “I didn’t ask to be born”—sometimes appears as a preface in some editions of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. The attitude proves of key importance to understanding the story of a being created to be one-of-a-kind, and thus isolated from the human society of his all too mortal creator.

In this essay I’ve discussed Alvin Schwartz’s original “Bizarro” story from the SUPERMAN comic stirp, with particularly emphasis on the narrative’s indebtedness to the story of FRANKENSTEIN. Not only does Bizarro’s physiognomy resemble the angular countenance of the Universal film-monster as essayed by Boris Karloff—although Bizarro’s flesh looks rather like chalk-colored stone—but Bizarro too is an “imperfect copy” of normative humanity. True, Bizarro specifically emulates the form of Superman, an alien being who looks human but has “powers far beyond those of ordinary mortals.” But Schwartz frequently emphasizes that Bizarro, like the Frankenstein Monster, is a form of life that stands outside the normative biological process, and which may be considered not unlike God’s creation of mankind from the medium of clay.

Mary Shelley codes her reference to the Judeo-Christian narrative by giving the book the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus.” In some legends the Graeco-Roman Titan is said to be able to sculpt living men out of clay, and Frankenstein does essentially the same thing by sculpting a monster out of the “common clay” of dead bodies. Some critics have objected to the logic of Frankenstein’s piecemeal construction of the Monster, asking whether it would not have been more practical to simply revive a single dead body, whose parts were biologically designed to work with one another. But Shelley’s mythopoeic design was sound. By having Frankenstein choose random body parts with which to make his monster, she furthers the idea of his godlike status, choosing organs as Prometheus would have chosen this or that lump of clay to turn into a human being.

Schwartz’s Bizarro is obviously not made of disparate body parts; he arises as a result of radiation interacting with what Schwartz calls “unliving matter.”  At the end of the comic strip narrative, Superman, less than pleased to have an imperfect copy of himself running around loose, manages to devolve Bizarro back to his constituent elements—his “common clay,” if you will—though the last strip is unusually coy about showing Bizarro’s inorganic remains “on-camera.”

Later iterations of the Bizarro mythos in DC comic books of the Silver Age sought to emphasize broad farce rather than tragic alienation, and thus the “imperfect Superman” was given a planet-ful of other Bizarros, mostly copies of characters from Superman’s mythos. For a time they all inhabited a faux version of Earth, but cube-shaped instead of round, and they all spoke in reverse-logic, saying “Goodbye” in place of “Hello,” and so on.



“Being Bizarro” is a re-writing of Bizarro mythology by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. It's a two-part story that takes place within a twelve-issue arc SUPERMAN arc, but the overall arc is outside my consideration here.  There are no direct references to either Shelley or Schwartz in this tale, though it’s interesting that artist Quitely dispenses with the “classic” chalk-faced look of the Bizarros, making them all look like they have faces of white clay.



In this re-imagining, the Bizarro phenomenon does not start out with one imperfect duplicate being conjured forth by some scientist’s invention. Rather, the “common clay” from which Morrison’s Bizaaros originate launches an attack against the living denizens of Superman’s world. From a domain termed “the Underverse,” also described as part of the “cosmic sinkhole” underlying normative reality, a “planet eater” organism seeks to prey on Earth. Despite the metaphysical nature of this proposition, Morrison’s script draws upon biological patterns. Thus the planet-eater takes the shape of another planet in order to mimic Earth’s appearance, but the organism botches the job and looks like a big cube in space. The Underverse then sends forth Bizarro-duplicates of living beings, one of which is a “Super Bizarro” who successfully duplicates some, though not all, of Superman’s p;owers. The duplicates that reach Earth can infect humans and turn them into Bizarros, which argues that Morrison sought to crossbreed the Bizarro mythology with the still popular “zombie infestation” stories.

Superman, after defeating the Super Bizarro, decides that a direct attack may discourage the invading planet-eater, so he launches himself into space until he reaches the planet called “Bizarro-Home,” and—he hits it. He hits the planet-eater so hard that it retreats back into the cosmic sinkhole. However, as soon as it does so, the shifts in gravity and solar radiation drain Superman of his powers. The planet, just like its clay-faced pawns, is not equipped to understand Superman’s plight, but in another display of protective mimicry, it produces more Bizarros, all imbecilic parodies of people whom Superman knows in his world. These new duplicates include goofy versions of Justice League heroes, and even a Bizarro Jor-El, who calls himself “Le-Roj.” 



(As Bizarros of the Silver Age never inverted their names, this is probably Morrison having fun with a trope more associated with Mister Mxyzptlk.)  However, one duplicate the planet does not intentionally produce is an “aberration” who calls himself “Zibarro.”



While the Super Bizarro is a “funhouse mirror” reflection of Superman’s powers, Zibarro seems a more direct reflection of Superman’s intellectual capacities. Zibarro is the only being on the planet capable ot talking in whole sentences and of feeling finer emotions. If the Frankenstein Monster and the original Bizarro were outcasts from human society by reason of their freakish physiques, Zibarro is alienated from his own people by virtue of his superior intellect. The soul-cry of the anguished nerd resonates as Zibarro complains to Superman, “Must only Zibarro search for poetry in this senseless coming and going?” The other Bizarros overhear this plaint and mock him, “Ha ha ha; Zinarro am King of Cool!”



The hero’s sympathy for Bizarro-Home’s only intelligent being doesn’t obviate his own mission: to get off the planet before it makes its complete descent into the Underverse. Superman gets an inspiration, though, from the presence of Le-Roj, who acts as if he were the father of Zibarro, even though there’s clearly no normal biological link. The Man of Steel decides to build a rocket to take him out of the Underverse, just as Jor-El’s rocket saved infant Kal-El from the destruction of Krypton. To accomplish this,, Superman has to con the other Bizarros into helping him by employing their own reverse-logic—and even then, his plan may be foiled when the Bizarros get the idea of using the rocket to get rid of the irritant of Zibarro.


I’ll refrain from detailing the way in which Superman manages to escape destruction and to return to his own adopted world. The main emphasis of the narrative is on the courage of Zibarro, forced to do the right thing despite enormous temptation, and on his role in fulfilling Morrison’s idea of teleology. While Superman promises to return and liberate Zibarro at some later date, the Man of Steel voices his real opinion of the aberration’s place in the scheme of things when he tells Zibarro, “I know you think of yourself as a flaw, an imperfection, but you’re something more, Zibarro. You’re proof that Bizarro-Home is getting smarter.” Zibarro’s sacrifice, his re-descent into base matter, resembles the devolution of Schwartz’s Bizarro, though Morrison has extended the associations in many intriguing directions. Prior to the world’s descent into “the All-Night,” Le-Roj—whose reversed name looks like “Le Roi,” French for “The King”—perishes upon a sacrificial pyre, wearing a stereotypical king’s crown on his head as he dies.



I don’t imagine that in the near future Morrison will re-visit his version of the Bizarro mythology, which is just as well, since this rethinking seems uniquely suited to his own priorities. Some myths just don’t travel well, and I for one would have to see someone like Mark Waid put his hands on Morrison’s concepts.

Friday, October 6, 2017

ETHICS AMONG THE SUBCOMBATIVES PT. 2

In Part 1 I noted that even though two unrelated films were both subcombative, they had widely divergent attitudes toward evoking the affect of courage.

I read Mark Twain's 1896 PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC for the first time this week, and I was rather surprised to find Twain, the master satirist, delivering the legend of "the Maid of Orleans" with complete seriousness. He only utilizes his trademark humor to delineate some of the side-characters in Joan's dramatic arc, but contrary to my expectations the book was surprisingly affecting.

In terms of the book's plot and main character, it rings in as a subcombative work. Joan herself does not fight, but simply leads her troops to victory up to the middle portion of the book, and the rest of the story is inevitably devoted to her martyrdom at the hands of her political and religious enemies. To be sure, however, there are a handful of strong fight-scenes in the book. Even more surprisingly, Twain endorses a view of Joan's glorious greatness that seems at odds with such down-to-earth Twain characters as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Here's how the POV character-- implicitly speaking for Twain himself, IMO-- sums up the greatness of Joan in Chapter 17, during the ardors of her accusation.

Consider. If you would realize how great Joan of Arc was, remember that it was out of such a place and such circumstances that she came week after week and month after month and confronted the master intellects of France single-handed, and baffled their cunningest schemes, defeated their ablest plans, detected and avoided their secretest traps and pitfalls, broke their lines, repelled their assaults, and camped on the field after every engagement; steadfast always, true to her faith and her ideals; defying torture, defying the stake, and answering threats of eternal death and the pains of hell with a simple "Let come what may, here I take my stand and will abide."
Yes, if you would realize how great was the soul, how profound the wisdom, and how luminous the intellect of Joan of Arc, you must study her there, where she fought out that long fight all alone—and not merely against the subtlest brains and deepest learning of France, but against the ignoble deceits, the meanest treacheries, and the hardest hearts to be found in any land, pagan or Christian.
She was great in battle—we all know that; great in foresight; great in loyalty and patriotism; great in persuading discontented chiefs and reconciling conflicting interests and passions; great in the ability to discover merit and genius wherever it lay hidden; great in picturesque and eloquent speech; supremely great in the gift of firing the hearts of hopeless men and noble enthusiasms, the gift of turning hares into heroes, slaves and skulkers into battalions that march to death with songs on their lips. But all these are exalting activities; they keep hand and heart and brain keyed up to their work; there is the joy of achievement, the inspiration of stir and movement, the applause which hails success; the soul is overflowing with life and energy, the faculties are at white heat; weariness, despondency, inertia—these do not exist.
Yes, Joan of Arc was great always, great everywhere, but she was greatest in the Rouen trials. There she rose above the limitations and infirmities of our human nature, and accomplished under blighting and unnerving and hopeless conditions all that her splendid equipment of moral and intellectual forces could have accomplished if they had been supplemented by the mighty helps of hope and cheer and light, the presence of friendly faces, and a fair and equal fight, with the great world looking on and wondering.


This subcombative work, which recognizes the importance of "exalting activities," makes a marked contrast with Shakespeare's 1602 TROILUS AND CRESSIDA. Like JOAN, TROILUS is a work which includes a handful of violent scenes which are not integral to the main arc of the plot, even though Troilus, one of the two main characters, does spend a few minutes on the Trojan battlefield. Yet Shakespeare, who sometimes emphasized the ethic of glory in earlier plays, rejects that ethic firmly in TROILUS, as I noted in my commentary here:


....in essence, Shakespeare undercuts all the glory and honor associated with the great duel-- though, to be sure, Homer seems quite aware of the innate brutality of the war itself-- and makes Achilles into a honorless dog who lets his personal guard the Myrmidons, chop down Hector when the latter has partly doffed his armor.
In Part 3 of this new series, I'll explore some of the ramifications involved when a subcombative work aligns itself with themes most often seen in combative works.

TRANSITIVE MONSTERS PT. 2

In TRANSITIVE MONSTERS , I concluded my discussion of combative modes in two horror film-serials with this paragraph:

On a related note, I have not yet finished re-screening all of the Hammer DRACULA films. However, even if I never get around to SCARS OF DRACULA, I tend to believe that the combative mode in the key films of the series-- notably HORROR OF DRACULA and BRIDES OF DRACULA-- that all films within the series will be subsumed by the combative mode, even those that I've judged to be individually subcombative, like TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA.
In recent months, I've concluded a re-screening of all of the Hammer DRACULA films, and have reviewed all of them on my film-blog except for the last, sometimes known as THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA. The last film is an anomalous one in that the narrative emphasis is not on the vampire lord, but on "the seven brothers," a group of kung-fu fighters who become allied to Van Helsing in his quest to destroy the vampire count. Thus, what I write about the series concerns only the eight films preceding SEVEN BROTHERS-- HORROR OF DRACULA, BRIDES OF DRACULA (which doesn't actually have Dracula in it, though Van Helsing's character carries over from the first film), DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, SCARS OF DRACULA, DRACULA 1972 A.D., and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA.

Of these eight films, the first, second, seventh and eighth are combative, while the other four are not. As I said, BRIDES does not involve Dracula, but it features a bracing climax in which Peter Cushing's Van Helsing defeats the centric monster, one Baron Meinster. This was also the only film of these eight that did not include actor Christopher Lee as Van Helsing's opponent. It's arguable that Van Helsing's destruction of Meinster-- trapping the vampire in the shadow of a cross, created by windmill-blades-- is the most strikingly original of the four combative films.



Now that I've made these observations re: the combative mode in the series, I hypothesize that the Hammer producers found it hard to conceive of any mortals opposing their forceful fiend unless the opponent was (1) Van Helsing himself, (2) forces allied to Van Helsing (the "seven brothers"), or (3) a strong Van Helsing analogue. Such an analogue appears in 1963's KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, in which a Professor Zimmer unleashes a magical curse-- in the form of a flock of bats-- upon a clutch of evil vampires.


As I mentioned in the review, this climax was one that Peter Cushing didn't want to perform for BRIDES OF DRACULA, so that the curse-work was recycled into another movie. KISS OF THE VAMPIRE was not in the Dracula/Van Helsing series, yet strangely, it's the only Hammer film outside the series that had a combative conclusion, in contrast to four other non-series entries: THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, VAMPIRE CIRCUS, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE, and TWINS OF EVIL.

As my reading of the Dracula series stands, it's evenly divided between combative and sub-combative, which would make it difficult to judge the series as a whole according to my original standard, the 51 percent rule. Of course, the first part of TRANSITIVE MONSTERS was written after I formulated a more exacting formulation for judging the combative mode and related matters, the active share/passive share theory.  By this formulation, the actual number of combative stories within a mythos is not the final determinant, which gives me an "out" for any series that's evenly divided between combative and subcombative entries.

Generally speaking, given a 50-50 situation, t have tended to favor the combative over the subcombative. The "King Kong" series of Merian C. Cooper comprises just two interrelated films, the 1933 KING KONG and its same-year sequel SON OF KONG, but the first film's combative characteristics have proven more culturally significant than the sequel's subcombative theme of self-sacrifice.

However, in contrast to my prediction in Part One, I've determined that the eight-film in the Dracula-focused series-- even though it includes one vampire who is a "Dracula wannabe"-- is dominantly subcombative.

To show this, I'll contrast the Dracula series to that of Freddy Krueger. I expounded upon the latter series in Part One, showing that although the first two films in the series were subcombative, the next four all stressed the idea that average teenagers could become aware of Freddy's dream-based depredations and could, with some mental training, turn themselves into "dream warriors." Though Freddy Krueger is always the star of the show, ordinary humans can "ramp up" their abilities to fight him on his own terms.

There's no such "ramping up" in any of the Hammer Draculas that don't include Van Helsing; the implication is always that ordinary humans can only muddle through and win by last-minute flashes of inspiration.

In DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS the vampire is only defeated when one of his enemies shoots holes in the ice Dracula just happens to be standing on.



In DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, the vampire's male opponent Paul manages to push Dracula off the edge of a cliff, but the only reason this stops the vampire is because he just happens to get impaled on a cross that another character tossed off the cliff earlier.



In TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, the only reason Dracula's opponents survive is because they just happen to be in a church during his attack and have access to a cross.


And in SCARS OF DRACULA, the count is defeated not by his human opponents, but by the heavens themselves, when lightning strikes the metal rod Dracula happens to be holding.



The attitude of the Hammer producers toward the potential of any character save Van Helsing contrasts strongly with that of Bram Stoker, where ordinary men like Jonathan Harker and Quincy Morris do "ramp up" to slay a monster far more powerful than they are.

I'm not trying to claim that dumb luck never plays a role in the victories of more megadynamic characters. But when a series shows no interest in giving its villain/monster a range of worthy opponents, then it suggests that they are more interested in evoking the expression of "fear" than of "courage," to draw upon the opposed affects mentioned in this essay.

And if the series is more invested in fear than in courage, this, more than its pure percentage of combative episodes, aligns it with the subcombative mode.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

WORK PLAY LOVE

In this review from my movie-blog I touched on the dialectic of work and play indirectly. An otherwise average episode of the teleseries KUNG FU, "The Hoots," brings the hero Kwai Chang Caine into prolonged contact with a group of Hutterite sheepherders. The "hoots" are defined in terms of their extreme pacifism and abstemiousness, and while Caine lives a life that is arguably no less disciplined, he does not define discipline in terms of self-denial. Indeed, Master Po tells Young Caine that, "The purpose of discipline is to live more fully, not less."

The scene evolves as follows: while Caine stays with the sheepherders, he pays for his keep with work. He begins cutting wood, singing a work-song as he does so. Schultz, the de facto leader of the group, objects to Caine's singing because he feels that work must be identical with "suffering." Caine expresses the opinion that singing makes the work go more easily, so why not do it? Nevertheless, the Shaolin accedes to his host's wishes but the overall trajectory of the episode is that Caine is right about the practicality of using play to lighten one's work-load, and that Schultz's desire for public suffering-- both his own, and that of his community-- stems from pride: the pride to show off how well he can wear the hair-shirt.

My first comments about the dialectic of "work and play" appears in the two-essay series THE DIVIDING LINE, starting here. I said back then:


In any case other play-acting creatures, just like humans, begin as entities with no ability to work, even if other animals aren't helpless for as long a period as humans. Both animals and humans can, however, play even if they can't work, at least in the most exploratory and unstructured manner. And though humans have a longer development period than other animals, humans don't remain isolated from the concept of work all that much longer than our fellow beasts: if their "vacation" ends with the onset of adulthood in about a year or so, the human freedom to do nothing but play ends not with adulthood but with a protracted period of learning which, because it has a discrete purpose, must be considered as "work."
So human children become intimately acquainted with the dialectic of work and play early on. But because most adults prioritize the need for play in children's development, one may symbolically identify juveniles with the activity of play.

Conversely, though adults too exist within a continuum in which they balance work and play, the essence of being adult is that an adult must work to make it possible for children to grow, develop, and play-- at least until said adult is old enough to retire from work (at least in theory) and to devote the remainder of his life to "play," if he so wishes.

I spoke of how an adult builds on his childhood experience to achieve a "balance" between the elements of work, activity that must be done, and play, activity one is pleased to do. However, I didn't comment upon the basic idea that elements of play are sometimes used to make work more pleasurable, though in FREEDOM VS. FREEDOM PT. 2 I mentioned that the two activities were interdependent:

 I mention this to emphasize that both "work" and "play" are interdependent necessities, not opposed in the conventional sense that people oppose, say, "right choice" and "wrong choice."

The activities are interdependent in part because of the way humans, and many other higher animals, have evolved to explore the world in a playful context before settling down to the business of sustaining oneself, i.e., "work." The observations that a creature makes, or does not make, in its developmental phases may well determine the creature's fitness to survive in its adult form.

Whether or not non-human animals practice any activities comparable with "work-songs," or even Disney's take of "whistling while you work," I cannot say. I think it inarguable that human beings have been pursuing this strategy for centuries. One might choose to judge it purely as an evolutionary adaptive practice, though I believe this would be too simple. At the conclusion of FREEDOM VS. FREEDOM PART 2, I said:

Can one meaningfully draw parallels, then, between the freedom to make moral choices and the ability to change one's phenomenological perspective within fictional narratives? I obviously think so, even with my knowledge that most people are not conscious of those differing perspectives. 

I chose to focus in that context upon "phenomenological perspective" because in that essay I started out contrasting "discursive thinking" and "mythical thinking." However, play need not involve phenomenology as such. Freud suggested that a baby who threw his toys out of their cribs over and over were in the grip of a "repetition-compulsion." But this overlooks the possibility that the baby, learning that his parent will pick up the toy and put it back in the crib, may simply be indulging in a rudimentary form of "play," one oriented on controlling the somewhat unpredictable parental unit.

Play can be a way of sussing out the way the normal world works, if only by contrasting normal behavior with abnormal behavior. To the Hutterite Schultz, the "normal" was defined by labor, suffering, and avoidance of conflict, while Kwai Chang Caine was concerned by the interaction of work and play, the (seemingly) normal and the (seemingly) abnormal, the peaceful mind and the need to fight to defend the body. To be sure, Schultz's over-emphasis on "work" may have come about in reaction to others who played too much: "the house of mirth" to his "house of mourning." But both of the houses include "many mansions," and it would seem that an ability to spend some time in both houses is intrinsic to learning how to live-- and love-- more fully.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: "WHERE LURKS THE CHIMERA" (TOMB OF DRACULA #26-28, 1974-5)

The 1971 modification of the Comics Code sprang from both economic and cultural forces. As I pointed out in this essay, in the late 1960s American comics-publishers needed new outlets beyond the standard juvenile audience. The original Comics Code came about because the genres of crime and horror brought the industry unwanted publicity. Crime never made a major comeback, but horror never entirely left, surviving throughout the Silver Age in relatively restrained “mystery” tales. But the Warren line of black-and-white magazines, beginning with CREEPY in 1964, consistently demonstrated a market for more visceral horror. Thus it was only a matter of time until other publishers sought to capture that market in four-color comics. It would be interesting to know what cultural indicators convinced the industry leaders that the game was worth the candle, but in any case, the early 1970s saw a marked increase in horror-titles from “the Big Two." With a few exceptions DC Comics focused largely on anthologies, while Marvel usually chose to feature particular characters related to the theme of terror.




Marvel’s most long-lasting success in this department was TOMB OF DRACULA, launched in 1972. In some respects thiis version of the vampiric count had a lot in common with Marvel’s world-beating villains, in that Dracula preened and postured almost as much as Doctor Doom. But Marvel’s count was crafted so as to take advantage of certain constant themes in vampire mythology—in particular, that of religion.

“Where Lurks the Chimera” is the title of the first of three stories running from TOMB #26-28. Though the title displays a cookie-cutter portentousness typical of Marvel story-titles, this time it’s actually relevant to the theme of the story.

In Greek myth, a chimera is a fearsome monster, notable for being a tripartite beast, with a goat’s head, a lion’s body, and a serpent’s tail. In the Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan story, the chimera is a magical statue created long before the nation of Greece existed. Wolfman possibly chose to name his fictional statue after the Greek creature to address a major plot-point: that in the past the statue has been broken up into its three constituent pieces, and that only recently have the pieces been recovered and brought together. The statue is rumored to confer immense powers upon its owner. This is reason enough for a certain world-beating vampire to chase after it.

Though vampire stories appear around the world, the tradition of the fictional vampire is rooted in Christian belief and folklore Most of the TOMB stories prior to this one did not stray far from these origins, but Wolfman expanded the compass of the central character’s adventures. This time Dracula contends not only with a rival villain who also wants the Chimera—later revealed to be an evildoer named Doctor Sun—but also with a young Jewish man who seeks to protect the statue from falling into evil hands.

Though many comics-professionals of the period were Jewish, including Marv Wolfman, Jews were not given much literal representation in comics until the 1970s. The statue of the Chimera, though, is first seen in the hands of two yarmulke-wearing Jews living in London: young yeshiva-student David Eschol and his father Joshua. Joshua is the image of the saintly old learned Jew, confident in his unwavering faith and his ability to remain uncorrupted by the availability of the Chimera’s power. He might be deemed a descendant of the “Rabbi Lowe” character of the classic "Golem" narrative. 


David is much more uncertain about handling a “creature of nightmare,” and as things turn out, he’s proven right. Joshua’s acquisition of the Chimera’s three sections prompts Doctor Sun to send a gang of thugs to the old man’s shop. The thugs kill Joshua, club David unconscious, and abscond with the Chimera—or rather, two parts of the Chimera, for David manages to keep hold of the tail-piece.

Dracula arrives at the Eschols’ shop too late to claim his prize, but he does see that David still possesses the one segment. While Dracula himself goes to look for the other two segments, he sends one of his human agents—a previously introduced young woman, Shiela Whittier-- to contact David and to keep tabs on him. Shiela, in contrast to most of Dracula’s pawns, is actually in love with the vampire. The count is at least slightly moved by her loyalty, though, given his aristocratic ego, he believes that he’s owed such fealty from all those who serve him.

I’m omitting various irrelevant subplots, as well as Dracula’s peril when he tracks down Doctor Sun and is almost slain in a death-trap. But once the vampire recovers, he tracks down David and Shiela. As if seeking to assuage his ego—he was almost killed by Sun, after all—Dracula confronts David and demands the tail-piece. He then demonstrates his ability, even with the incomplete segment, to conjure forth a giant fire-lion in the sky, which spits fire down on London, and then sends a shower of rain to put out the fire.




Wolfman’s script is a little vague as to why David so quickly yields the segment to Dracula, even though the vampire does not use his hypnotic power on the young man. Why does David do so?
Early in issue #26, one of Wolfman’s captions reads: in part, “for all these years David Eschol has never once strayed form the path outlined by his forefathers. But before the night is done, the path of his youth shall venture down many new roads—all but one of which shall lead to hell.”  If his father is the face of the unwavering Believer, David is cast in the role of the Doubting Thomas. As David comes to a realization that Dracula incarnates the evil his father foreswore, David defends himself, using a Star of David to hold off Dracula after the fashion of the more popular cross.


Yet Dracula’s evil is seductive. He plays upon David’s religiosity by claiming that the Jewish god, if he created the world, is therefore also the creator of all evils. David weakly refutes the charge with the “free choice” argument. Dracula fires back with the “great man” argument:

“Man does not have his choice in things. He follows the will of his betters—and he is destroyed if he does not.”

Despite never having met David Eschol before, the count intuits that the young man is gnawed by doubts, and promises to give David a sense of ”order,” much as his own father did, albeit in a thoroughly demonic mirror-image. David does not exactly give in, but he lowers his guard, giving Dracula the chance to attack. However, David wounds the vampire with the Star of David—at which point the henchmen of Doctor Sun arrive, capturing all three; David, Sheila and the vampire.

If the story;s second part is largely about David’s temptation, the third places its emphasis upon lovelorn Shiela—though the last part of the “Chimera” tale suffers from incredibly poor plotting by Wolfman. The story opens with Doctor Sun—still not as yet named or seen on-panel—gloating over his captives and boasting about the fact that he now possesses all three parts of the Chimera, giving him access to “the power of the cosmic eternal.”


Yet, the only thing Sun does with this power is to torment his captives with horrific visions. Dracula is surrounded by all of his regular enemies—Blade, Rachel Van Helsing, and so on—who try to destroy him. David sees his own father speaking the same heretical words Dracula spoke earlier, such as, “There is no God! There is no supreme being! I lied!” Only Shiela is actually shown a vision that reflects an unwelcome truth: a vision in which Dracula seems ready to make love to her, and yet turns into a skull-headed avatar of Death in the end.

Since Dracula is the star of the comic, he alone manages to break free of the false visions. He overcomes Sun’s henchmen, though the master villain escapes. Dracula reclaims the Chimera-statue, but his blasé trust in Shiela’s unconditional love causes him to drop his guard. Shiela snatches the statue from him and shatters it. Dracula is of course enraged, but even David reviles Shiela for her actions, saying that, “you had no right”—showing that he has to some extent internalized his father’s mission of being the custodian of arcane objects. Only Shiela is practical enough to realize that that the Chimera could bring only death to the good and the evil alike.  She and David leave together, and Dracula is too overcome with indecision to stop them. To be sure, though, both young people meet unhappy fates in the next issue, in keeping with the tone of a horror comic.



On a minor note, Wolfman’s history for the creation of the Chimera hearkens back to the pre-historical eras of Robert E. Howard, whose works Marvel had the license to adapt during this period. The statue’s maker is given the name “C’thunda,” and since a lot of Marvel writers back then made ample use of Lovecraftian references, this name might be a shout-out to Lovecraft’s demon-god Cthulhu. On the other hand, “C’thunda” also sounds a lot like the Greek word “chthonic.” This signifies things pertaining to the earth and the underworld, and, coincidentally enough, a Marvel writer later used this word to make up their own earth-deity, “Chthon.” It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to the creator of the Chimera, an airborne beast, unless one sees the creation of its demonic power to be nothing but another road leading to the domain of Hell. Regarded in this light, the answer to the question "where lurks the Chimera" would seem to be "in the depths of the human soul."

Saturday, September 30, 2017

NULL-MYTHS: RIBIT 1-4 (1989)

In GOOD WILL QUANTUMS PT.3, I summed up the "null-myth" thusly:

Nowadays, I would not associate my idea of the "null-myth" with this base denotative functionality: over time it's come to mean a work that had "super-functional" potential coded into the narrative but which became denatured by authorial confusion or misjudgment. 
In most of the examples I've analyzed so far, most of the time the "authorial confusion" stems from the author using mythopeoic symbols in a desultory manner, as if they were mere functionalities, or allowed the symbols to be reined in by didactic considerations. However, there's also the possibility that the author may allow himself to be overwhelmed by his own symbolic prolificity. Like the monarch who complained that Mozart had "two many notes," an author can produce "too many symbols" for his narrative to support. Case in point: Frank Thorne's four-issue Comico title, RIBIT.



RIBIT is almost impossible to summarize. It takes place in some vague future in which there abound references to 20th-century culture, but there's no physical resemblance to any 20th-century settings. Thorne's world is a phantasmagoria out of Bosch, in which both magic and science are hopelessly intermingled. In essence, it's a one-shot feature that allowed Thorne to draw any damn thing he felt like drawing, whether it worked within the context of a narrative or not.

For most of the story, the title character looks like a three-foot-tall version of Thorne's most famous comics-character, Red Sonja. Ribit starts out as the lizard-like familiar of a sorceress named Sahtee, and though Ribit is not human, she nurtures a devotion for Thog, a big ox of a human who works for Sahtee, Sahtee, like a lot of fantasy-sorcerers, has rivals, and she tries to create a formidable warrior-woman as a servant. The creation goes awry with Sahtee's magic combines with little Ribit, who then turns into slightly bigger Ribit. Ribit has no real loyalty to Sahtee, though, being totally devoted to Thog. Nevertheless, events transpire to get Ribit, Thog and Sahtee-- who gets transformed into a furry little homunculus-- involved in a lot of crazy fantasy-world shenanigans. 



I note with amusement that in the Grand Comics Database entry for this series, the contributor didn't list any character except Ribit-- which may indicate that he simply threw up his hands at Frank Thorne's tendency to whip out a new character every few pages. The result is definitely an "embarrassment of riches," in the sense that the art always looks impressive and imaginative, but there's not much context to any of it, except that one can be sure that whatever Thorne drew amused the heck out of him. 



(Incidentally, from the angle of the combative mode, Ribit occasionally demonstrates some fighting-talent, but the stories are so shapeless that Thorne clearly had no intention in creating a warrior-woman to rival Red Sonja. Indeed, by series' end Ribit goes back to being a lizard-- which makes one wonder what kind of lizard Thorne ever heard, that made the sort of sound associated with frogs?)

In my review of PRINCESS KNIGHT, I said that the "problematic structure" of certain works by Tezuka might 'stem from the same "problem" one finds in the works of Jack Kirby: both artists were just so damn creative they sometimes overwhelmed their own narratives with "new stuff."' Yet I felt that PRINCESS KNIGHT still had some structure, enough that I termed it a "near myth." RIBIT reminds me of the later issues of the RED SONJA. Supposedly Thorne worked on these with two writers, the very wordy Roy Thomas and comics-newcomer Clair Noto, but these issues-- aside from issue #1, reviewed here-- look like Thorne just drew whatever struck him as fun to draw. This was a sad state of affairs, because Thorne's artwork was at its best depicting Sonja's world of fantasy-- but the stories wandered and made no sense.



To sum up, RIBIT is an example of "underthinking" rather than "overthinking." Or as I put it in AFFECTIVE FREEDOM, COGNITIVE RESTRAINT:

...freedom without a complementary form of internal restraint is, as Janis Joplin sang, “just another word for nothing left to lose.”  Even in fiction, where the boundaries of affective freedom *may * sometimes exceed those of religious mythology, cognitive restraint is necessary to make the essentially mythic ideas relevant to living human beings.

QUICK THOUGHTS ON INHUMANS PREMIERE



I write this essay the day after a two-hour INHUMANS "film" premiered on ABC-TV. This broadcast premiere follows what has been described as a "disaster," when the same two hours debuted exclusively on IMAX theatre-screens.

I had no high hopes for this franchise. In my review of the 1998 Jenkins/Lee graphic novel, I commented that the characters had failed to enjoy success in comic books partly because they were "static." Of course, the history of the comics-characters doesn't speak to their potential as a franchise in other media-- look at ANT-MAN, a marked failure in the medium of his birth but an adequate performer in his cinematic makeover. But, prior to the debut of the INHUMANS show, Marvel Television attempted to boost the appeal of the franchise by interweaving a very vague version of the Lee-Kirby concept in with the story-lines of their currently-running teleseries AGENTS OF SHIELD. I found these Inhumans-Shield stories witless and tedious, but that was no surprise, since SHIELD had been witless and tedious even before it started trying to build up the Inhumans. Clearly ABC-TV was forcing one modestly popular franchise to attempt supporting a completely unknown entity. It's been suggested that one reason for this strategy was that, seeing how 20th-Century Fox had profited from their cinematic rights to the X-Men, Marvel Entertainment wanted a new set of "merry mutates" over which it had exclusive control.

However, the SHIELD show did not adapt the classical "Royal Family" or any support-characters from various versions of the comics-franchise. Thus, the ABC pilot was free to build upon those characters with no reference to anything that had happened on the SHIELD show. That show merely alluded to the comics' idea of the "terrigen mists" through which the Inhuman citizens of Attilan mutate themselves in new, often fantastic, sometimes super-powered forms. Thus the two-hour film introduces audiences to the Royal Family who have always been the stars of the INHUMANS franchise-- Attilan's monarch Black Bolt and his super-powered cousins, Gorgon, Karnak, Medusa, Triton, and Crystal. The pilot also introduces the family's pet Lockjaw, a colossal canine with a penchant for teleportation, and Black Bolt's scheming brother Maximus.

I won't review the two-hour film, in part because it's a continued story that may not be resolved until the last of the show's eight episodes. I can to some extent understand why anyone who splurged to see the film in IMAX would feel cheated, for in terms of production, it's just another TV-movie. Sets and FX are more expensive than they would be for a commonplace SF-themed teleseries, but they can't compare with the outlay for Real Hollywood Features. If you're looking for big-budget eye-candy, the INHUMANS two-parter is not for you.

Still, I'm amazed that anyone would call this "jaw droppingly awful television." The characters are not precisely the same as their comics-templates, but that may be a plus, since the Royal Family has sometimes come off like a bunch of royal bores. Scott Buck is credited as the "showrunner," which presumably means that INHUMANS is written by a team of scripters. But Buck or someone has devoutly researched the original comics-series, with good effect to the dramatic arcs for the show's seven main characters (eight if you count the dog). One of the better moments, in which Evil Maximus shears away Medusa's formidable tresses, is taken from the Jenkins-Lee graphic novel. Not every arc is equally entertaining. But if there's even one good arc-- such as the complex relationship between Black Bolt, his wife Medusa, and Maximus, who desires his brother's wife-- that's one more good arc than AGENTS OF SHIELD has.

I've encountered some complaints about the quality of the FX. I admit I can see some flaws-- especially with the animation of Medusa's prehensile locks-- but it's not that much worse than most of the FX on television. Slightly flawed CGI doesn't bother me. I grew up seeing most of the TV-aliens sport zippers in their backs.

I might dislike a lot of the behind-the-scenes deal-making, but the dubious machinations of the SHIELD-INHUMANS crossovers certainly didn't make SHIELD any worse than it already was. The debut for the show proper has some decent character moments and some interesting plot-developments. (Lockjaw uses his teleport-power to dump Black Bolt in the middle of a New York street. Howcum???)

I've seen many, many TV-debuts weaker and less appealing than THE INHUMANS. It's rumored that it will never get any more episodes due to the IMAX failure, which proves that whoever engineered that idea was a complete idiot. But it doesn't prove that Scott Buck's INHUMANS deserves to be dumped on in egregious fashion-- particularly when AGENTS OF SHIELD is a much deserving target.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

DISCOURSES WITH LIVING SYMBOLS

In DISCOURSES WITH DEAD MEN, I said:

So any artistic narrative always has this dual potential: it can be produced for a wide audience, or for the author alone. Psychic mediums notwithstanding, artistic narrative-- which term here subsumes also music and the visual arts-- is almost the only way that artists can keep "talking" with people long after the artists themselves are dead. To some extent non-fictional narrative shares some of the power of the arts, but artistic narrative seems to hold much more power to remain relevant to audiences born long after the narrative was originated.

I also mentioned in the same essay that I began addressing the subject of "discourses" recently as a way of sussing out the function of the mythopoeic potentiality, whose content is sometimes hard to separate from that of the other three.

Yet, once one is able to isolate a work's symbolic discourse, it often provides much more of a meaningful connection to the author's work than any of the others. One may not care for an author's ability to transmit sensory experiences, personalities, or intellectual ideas, or if one grants that the author has some ability, one still may not like the world-picture he transmits. But there's something ineluctably persuasive about the symbolic process. One can reject whatever intellectual ideas may be attached to it, and yet still admire the author's ability to converse in the language of symbols.

I'll take as example C.S. Lewis, whose non-fiction I've frequently discussed on this blog. While I find Lewis's ruminations on literature stimulating, his remarks on religion have often struck me as narrow-minded and self-serving, particularly in MERE CHRISTIANITY. In this book, Lewis responded to questions about the Christian religion, originally propounded via radio. Here's the one I disliked the most.

“Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the 'Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?’ But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did—if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather—surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.”

Intellectually, this is nonsense. Lewis is trying to distance religion from its involvement in the witch-hunts of the past by claiming that modern religionists are too educated to believe in such nonsense. Yet he can't completely condemn the fanatics of yesteryear, stating that if he could believe in people who made deals with the devil, he would regard them as "filthy quislings" deserving of death. His position also suggests that at the time he wrote this, whatever "wiccan" practices existed in England had gone so far underground that an educated man like Lewis could believe that no such persons existed in modern times. Lewis passed in 1963, so it's possible he never encountered the idea of modern witches worshiping archaic deities that were in no way affiliated with Satan. Even if Lewis had known of such cults, the writer would probably have given them no more respect than outright Satanists.

Yet, within his creative work, Lewis could entertain syncretic visions of religion. Narnia, despite being patterned on Christian belief, reproduces many of the images and icons of Greek paganism, and in THE LAST BATTLE, there is a dim suggestion that Aslan is not exclusively a "Christian" deity, but will give sanctuary even to righteous men who do not worship him.

The irony of my title is that, while I know that symbols are not alive apart from the role they play in the language of living persons, they can take on a "life" of their own, Indeed, the symbolic formulations of an author may seem much more "convivial" to a reader than the characters or the plot that serve as vehicles for symbolic events-- sacrificial dramas, world-saving conflicts, etc. Nor is there any symbolic formulation that is absolute. Lewis's Aslan is just one of thousands of literary sacrificial dramas, and one may name others that share none of Lewis's particular themes, but which still possess the same "unity of action" I've identified with strong symbolic discourse in this essay.  The 1971 film THE OMEGA MAN is concerned with many intellectual subjects foreign to Lewis, not least being an American preoccupation with racial matters. However, it is an evocation of the sacrificial pattern no less valuable than that of NARNIA. I quite preferred the film to its prose source material. Yet even though I found Matheson's I AM LEGEND less formidable in its mythic "unity of action," there would have been no OMEGA MAN had the novel not suggested the theme to the film's scriptwriters.

Despite my usage of the established term "unity of action," the unity involved in plurisignative communication is far more about unifying a plurality of affects, both sympathetic and antipathetic. For myths of sacrificial figures, it's about transcending the death that we know all mortal entities must experience. Aslan literally transcends death, while Robert Neville's transubstantiation is more figurative, but symbolic constructs may be said to enjoy both literal and figurative transcendence, if only because, having never lived, they can never really die.




Monday, September 25, 2017

MYTHCOMICS: THE INHUMANS #1-12 (1998-99)

Given the negative press being given to the new INHUMANS movie, it seems appropriate to look at one of the better renditions of these Marvel characters.



The Inhumans were introduced in the mid-sixties by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in FANTASTIC FOUR, and the prevailing wisdom is that they were mostly Kirby's designs. However, subsequent attempts to launch the characters in their own series were largely unsuccessful. Though personally I liked the characters, I found that they were too static and lacked a viable group dynamic. The pattern for THE INHUMANS slightly resembled the Lee-Kirby THOR. In both features, the stories alternated between a fabulous otherworld where most of the characters had super-powers, and visits to the mundane world of humanity. Yet, what worked for Thor-- a central character with a retinue of support-figures-- didn't really work for the five main characters of THE INHUMANS. One reason was that four of the continuing heroes-- Medusa, Gorgon, Karnak, and Triton-- were eternally defential to Black Bolt, who was not only the leader of their group, but their absolute monarch, and the ruler of all the Inhumans who dwelled in the remote city of Attilan. This meant that it was difficult for writers to evoke the standard formulas of Marvel interpersonal drama.



In this 12-issue maxi-series, writer Paul Jenkins and aritst Jae Lee found a way to exploit some of the "monumentalism" of the Inhumans theme, by focusing upon the enigma of Black Bolt. The character possesses a plurality of powers, but the one that most determines his character relates to his voice. Black Bolt is a "silent king" because even a whisper from his throat can unleash catastrophic sonic destruction. Early in the series, Jenkins's script even specifies the touch that his own parents-- and those of his brother Maximus-- were slain when Black Bolt uttered a calamitous sound. Jenkins uses captions to speculate on what Black Bolt may be thinking during the story's events, but in keeping with the usual depiction of the character, "thought-balloons" are not used for him (thus making him a distant pioneer to the many "mature" works of the 1990s that foreswore the use of balloons).



Brother Maximus, a prisoner in Attilan, is one of the threats to the Inhumans' peaceful isolation, and it's soon revealed that he has a hand in an outward threat: a group of mercenary soldiers, secretly funded by both Russian and American schemers. The soldiers surround Attilan and begin bombarding the force-field defenses of the super-city. To the expressed surprise of the four "junior" members of the Royal Family-- that is, Medusa, Gorgon, Karnak, and Triton-- Black Bolt refuses to take violent action against the invaders. Even when a few rank-and-file Inhumans suffer death or injury because of the invading humans, Black Bolt stays his hand, with no explanation. 


Thus the stratified nature of Inhuman society-- one in which Black Bolt is a messianic figure to a population where every citizen is "a subspecies of one"-- is used to beguile the reader as to the king's true motives. The field-leader of the invaders thinks that the Inhumans' king withholds violence due to a sense of noblesse oblige. "Being a man of honor," opines the military man, "it would be beneath him to destroy us." One of Black Bolt's subjects asks him. "What are you afraid of?," suggesting that he may withhold violence because the king was traumatized after killing his parents. 

Subplots also deal with some of the serpents in the Inhumans paradise. Earlier stories established the existence of the Alpha Primitives, a breed of lookalike Inhumans with no special powers, and though Lee and Kirby treated them simply as "shock troops," later authors, including Jenkins, put a "Morlock" spin on the Primitives, claiming that they were created to service Attilan's miraculous technology. "Their breeding," comments a character, "gives [the Primitives] no choice but to work the machines." The Inhumans' penchant for maximum diversity, in theory, sounds like it ought to prevent body-shaming, but Jenkins and Lee establish that there exists a "darkward" section of Attilan, as the dwelling-place for mutations who prove less than optimal. In addition, another subplot deals with some of the young people of the city, who are about to undergo their genetic transformations, and how some of them, following said transformations, began to show signs of pretension.

Still, the narrative emphasizes the unfathomable mystery of the monarch's apparent lack of initiative. Even when the conclusion reveals that he has been playing a dangerous game of chess against his opponents, the sense of mystery is not lessened. Lee's artwork, in contrast to the hyperkineticism of the Inhumans' artistic creator, gives the story's events a slow, stately gravitas, even evoking Egyptian art-motifs to convey the stasis of a monarchical rule-- as we see in the splash page to the cleverly named chapter "Sonic Youth."



Jenkins and Lee aren't able to do nearly as much with the other four members of the Royal Family, though each of them does get some attention. Karnak, who began as something of a gimmicky type, comes off best, as Jenkins makes his special power-- that of finding any physical flaw in a structure, so that he can break it-- a metaphor for the flawed nature of society and the physical world. In the end, even fantastic super-powers cannot reverse what Karnak calls the "entropy" of the world. But Black Bolt, despite his silent reserve, ultimately justifies his people's faith in him, and finds a way to put off doomsday for just a little longer.