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

Thursday, February 23, 2017


Fourth World is a good, if regrettably cut-off-too-soon,, body of work, but I don’t think of it as being “similar.” to the Marvel works. I think FW shows Kirby returning to the tropes he preferred in both his pre-Marvel and post-Marvel work: mostly balls-out pulp-action with occasional sentimental moments– nothing quite like the “epic soap opera” he worked on when collaborating with Stan Lee.
Yes, yes, Stan was no great shakes before JK and SD– although I don’t think anyone’s really fully evaluated all of his 50s work with Joe Maneely– but he was an editor first and a writer second, and Kirby’s talents were such that he needed some reining-in. I think the S&K studio provided some reins in the more realistic work– particularly the S&K romance stories, which might be the closest to Lee-Kirby Marvel in structure– but I’m just not seeing that JK could do it all alone, genius though he was.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017


In one of my old articles I don't wish to look up right now, I cited EC's 1953 story "Foul Play" as a mythic story, purely because of its imaginative-- if extremely improbable-- gore-met conclusion. These days, though, I'd dismiss the tale as something of a one-trick pony, at least in symbolic terms.

These days I believe mythcomics ought to suggest a greater play with symbolism than many of the better-loved EC stories do, and thus I find that VAULT OF HORROR #19 yields one such story.

"Daddy Lost His Head" doesn't seem to have been one of the more lauded EC-tales, nor did it earn the opprobrium that Frederic Wertham devoted to similar stories in which nasty adults got their comeuppance. Possibly the story lacked a certain impact because a young child deals out the punishment in all innocence, rather than, say, plotting to do away with Mommy and Daddy. Yet, given that "Daddy" was created entirely by male authors in a mostly-male bullpen, it shows a certain pro-feminist outlook.

Kathy is a doe-eyed eight-year old whose real father is long deceased and whose sickly mother married what the opening caption calls a "mean old stepfather." Kathy is first seen weeping because her stepfather Martin Blackson had just given her a beating, though the story never directly depicts corporal violence.

In a rapid-fire exchange between Martin and his wife, he's given a motivation for his hatred of his stepchild: Kathy resembles her original father, and her presence constantly mocks Martin's status with his wife. "I know you never loved me-- that you only married me for security!" The sickly wife doesn't deny this state of affairs. Way to encourage his wrath against your daughter, Mom!

Fortunately the weakling wife isn't the only representation of femininity around. The Blacksons' next door neighbor is an elderly woman with the coy name of "Mrs. Thaumaturge" (Greek for "miracle worker.") Martin doesn't like his neighbor any more than he likes his wife or stepdaughter, and he's quick to accuse her of being a witch, if only to subject Kathy to greater psychological terror. Kathy is thus caught between being curious about the old woman and being scared that, as Martin says, "She'll bake you... in her oven..." Writer Al Feldstein probably didn't mean the reader to assume that Martin seriously believed that his neighbor was a witch. Still, the mean stepfather's evocation of the cannibal crone from "Hansel and Gretel" turns out to be the key to his undoing-- especially when one remembers that the crone of the old tale was also something of a kitchen-witch.

The mother has another attack of her unspecified illness, and passes from this world, leaving Kathy entirely in the hands of the man who hates her. But providentially Mrs. Thaumaturge reaches out to Kathy, and makes her a special doll, made out of some sort of candy, and given a slight resemblance to the mean stepfather. (The colorist makes it look like chocolate.) Because the lonely girl becomes engrossed in playing with her new toy, she fails to do her chores. Martin sends her to bed without supper-- and in so doing, sets himself up for his timely fate. Kathy is so hungry that she can't resist biting off her doll's hand-- at which point, Martin just happens to be using a wood-saw, and well--

And then comes the typical EC "just desserts"-- for once, using a real dessert.

I won't waste a lot of time with Freudian noodlings about the equivalence of beheadings and castrations, though I would venture that such equivalences were much in the cultural air around 1951. But I rather like the empowering wrap-up proffered by the Crypt-Keeper, where the ghoul tells the reader that Mrs. Thaumaturge adopted the girl, and is "giving Kathy flying lessons-- on a broom!"

Though there's some reference to fetish-doll magic here, there's no real metaphysical symbolism of any importance. But when you've got the psychological chutzhpah of a little girl biting off the head of her bad daddy-- who needs metaphysics?

Monday, February 20, 2017


I last delved into sussing out the combative/subcombative episodes of LOST IN SPACE back in October, and here's my take on Season 2.


"Blast Off into Space"-- a space miner imperils the planet on which the Jupiter 2 resides. By accident a statue comes to life, menaces Smith and Will, and is destroyed by John Robinson. (C)

"Wild Adventure"-- a green space-siren lures Smith out of the ship. (SC)

"Ghost Planet"-- Smith gets captured by a super-computer and the Robot must kick the asses of other robotic minions to save him. John Robinson gets to karate-chop a couple robots, too. (C)

"Forbidden World"-- Smith drinks an explosive liquid. (SC)

"Space Circus"-- the owner of a space-circus tries to enslave Will, There's a very lethargic tussle between John Robinson and an ape-creature, but the ringmaster interrupts it. (SC)

"Prisoners of Space"-- aliens put the Jupiter-2 crew on trial. (SC)

"The Android Machine"-- a machine from a galactic department store creates a female android, who then seeks to learn humanity from the Robinsons and avoid being captured by officials from the store. (SC)

"The Deadly Games of Gamma 6"-- an alien entrepreneur lands on the Robinsons' current planet of residence, and challenges the Earth-people to fight for their world. Dr. Robinson wins a match against a vanishing midget, but fails to beat a more muscular opponent, partly because the fight is interrupted. The issue is settled by a "Russian Roulette" test of courage. (SC)

"Thief of Outer Space"-- near the conclusion an Arabian-looking alien thief swordfights John Robinson, but Major West interrupts the fight. A genie-like being attacks the group and Will banishes him with a magic ring. (SC)

"Curse of Cousin Smith"-- Smith's equally sneaky cousin Jeremiah comes calling, and gets both of them embroiled in a deadly wager. Robinson gets them out of it with a clever hoax. (SC)

"West of Mars"-- Zeno, a wanted outlaw, looks just like Smith and seeks to switch places with him. Episode ends with no battle, Zeno fleeing the law and law-enforcer in hot pursuit. (SC)

"A Visit to Hades"-- an imprisoned alien who looks like the Devil tries to trick Smith into setting him free. Episode ends with a comic fight in which West tries to slug the Devil; not only can West not even hurt his opponent, he's accidentally knocked out by his girlfriend Judy. (SC)

"Wreck of the Robot"-- aliens capture the Robot and study him in order to make a super-computer capable of controlling Earth mechanisms, for the purpose of conquering Earth. At the climax the Robot seeks to destroy the computer. The computer defends itself with a gale-like force but the Robot wins through and smashes it. (C)

"The Dream Monster"-- a short but combative fight at the end, when a mad scientist's android tries to kill the Robinsons and is blasted by the Robot. (C)

"The Golden Man"-- two enemy aliens try to destroy each other, thus catching the Robinsons in the middle. The good alien is almost defeated, but the bad one throws a grenade. Smith accidentally catches it, flings it away from him, and slays the bad alien. (SC)

"The Girl from the Green Dimension"-- The green siren is back, and so is her brawny boyfriend, who challenges Smith to a duel. Smith spends most of the duel running away and the siren persuades her lover not to kill him. (SC)

"The Questing Beast"-- a not-too-bright knight has spent 40 years chasing a dragon through space. Penny learns that the dragon is both female and intelligent. The knight tries to kill the dragon, but the revelation of its nature puts the damper on the crusade. Then the dragon, for old times' sake, chooses to keep the chase going, and they depart. (SC)

"The Toymaker"-- a genius toymaker comes into conflict with the galactic department store that once employed him, but the conflict is resolved peacefully. (SC)

"Mutiny in Space"-- a crazy admiral abducts Smith and Will to serve on his ship, but eventually returns them home. (SC)

"Space Vikings"-- Smith gets mixed up with a doppelganger for Thor. At the conclusion Thor hurls his hammer and drives some barely seen Frost Giants, but it's not more than functional violence. (SC)

"Rocket to Earth"-- wizard Zalto tries to trap Smith into doing his dirty work. (SC)

"Cave of the Wizards"-- Smith is possesses by an alien supercomputer, but manages to break his re-progamming thanks to Will. (SC)

"Treasure of the Lost Planet'-- a good pirate and several bad pirates make trouble for the Robinsons. (SC)

"Revolt of the Androids"-- two powerful androids battle, and the less powerful one triumphs. (C)

"The Colonists"-- alien queen Niolani enslaves the Robinsons, but they manage to sabotage her transmitter-device before she can summon her people to their planet, (SC)

"Trip Through the Robot"-- the Robot becomes Fantastically large and the Robinsons must Voyage inside him to effect repairs, only he starts shrinking again. (SC)

"The Phantom Family"-- an alien mad scientist creates doubles of the Robinsons. There's a lively scuffle between the scientist and the two alpha males, but it doesn't affect the conclusion, where the Smith double sacrifices itself to save the real Smith. (SC)

"The Mechanical Men"-- a race of miniature mechanical men want the Robot to lead them, so they transfer Smith's devilish personality into the Robot, and the Robot's into Smith's body. There's a short battle in which the Robinsons exchange laser-fire with the robot horde. Then John Robinson disables the Robot with a laser-shot, which also reverses the mind-transfer and convinces the little robots to leave. (C)

"The Astral Traveler"-- a Scottish ghost tries to avenge himself for the wrongs of Smith's ancestor. (SC)

"The Galaxy Gift"-- an alien named Arcon entrusts Penny with a special amulet, and Arcon's enemies try to get it from her. The bad aliens create an Earth-like world to hoax Smith and Penny, but Arcon intervenes at the end, causing the fake Earth to fall apart. (SC)

Hmm, only about five-six combative episodes out of thirty. It's not likely Season 3 will make any difference...

Thursday, February 16, 2017


I've written a few times about the difficulties of sussing out a focal presence when the narrative "will" seems to be focused upon a non-sentient environment. Carroll's Wonderland may be one of my earliest examples, since I don't believe that any character or group of characters stands out as the star of the show. In OBJECTS GIVEN LUSTER I looked at two narratives in which entire planets, irrespective of their inhabitants, were the foci of the respective stories.

The same principle applies to matters of time rather than space. I don't consider "the Time Traveler" to be the star of Wells' TIME MACHINE, and from one standpoint I might teem "time itself" to be the star. However, the bulk of the narrative does center itself upon the Eloi/Morlocks period of future-history, and so it's possible to see that one period as the focal presence of the Wells narrative.

It's much less problematic in some of the film-works influenced by Wells: in both WORLD WITHOUT END  and THE TIME TRAVELERS, some very forgettable viewpoint characters travel to specific eras of future-history. In the first, the time-jumpers manage to remake the future-Earth to suit their 20th-century tastes, while in the second, the travelers make it possible for the dead-end survivors of humankind to be reborn in a figurative "new Eden." But in both movies, it's the future-Earth that is the focal presence.

Still, there are times when a given "godlike figure," or group of figures, stands as the representative of his environment and/or people. Exeter of THIS ISLAND EARTH both stands for, and somewhat apart from, his fellow Metalunans. In the 1972 eco-horror film FROGS, the titular batrachians don't actually do anything to the hapless victims of a hostile environment. In my review, I remarked:

Oddly, the frogs don't do anything directly to anyone, but this is possibly the film's best conceit.  The frogs just sit around croaking while the other animals do all the dirty work, as if the batrachians were the brains of the swamp.  

Spooky houses or territories can also go either way. In my opinion the Overlook, the haunted hotel of Stephen King's THE SHINING, is the exothelic star of the story, not the psychic kid or his deranged dad. On the other hand, in the considerably less celebrated GHOST TOWN, a whole passel of spectral outlaws haunt a deserted western site. But only the leader of the outlaws, the significantly named "Devlin," incarnates the exothelic will of the haunted terrain: his stooges and the town itself are of lesser significance.

ADDENDA: It surprises me that though I completed this essay on the same day that I completed my essay on a MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER story, I failed to note that the main villain of the Magnus tale-- who went by the odd name of "L'sier" (like the French chemist Lavoisier?) represented the opposite tendency seen in THIS ISLAND EARTH and GHOST TOWN. Although L'sier is clearly the leader of the wastrel Gophs, as well as the only one named, he doesn't really do or say anything to distinguish himself from the rest of his crew. Therefore, although the Magnus story is *endothelic*-- that is, the authorial will concentrates on the featured robot-busting hero-- L'sier is not his "opposite number." Rather, the Gophs as a whole represent the antagonistic"will that opposes the central will." In similar fashion no single character in the motley crew of humans knocked off in FROGS stands out as representative of humanity, though Ray Milland's patriarch has the distinction of being saved for the final course of eco-revenge.


It's scarcely a coincidence that in my review of TRASHMAN LIVES I asserted that it was less symbolically complex than many contemporary kids' comics. This particular issue of Gold Key's MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER-- whose original stories ran mostly from 1963 to 1968-- is a case in point.

The setup, generally credited to artist-writer Russ Manning, had good mythic potential, drawing on the general science-fiction idea of the "supercity." In 4000 A.D. most of the North American continent has been covered by a single interwoven city, "North-Am," divided between the well-to-do people living in the high-rises and a barely seen lower class dwelling on the ground, in deserted buildings over two thousand years old. The idea may owe something to Wells' TIME MACHINE, but if so it's one in which the human underclass, the parallel to Wells' "Morlocks," barely exists in the stories. In place of Morlocks, Manning's effete "Eloi" of 4000 A.D. have constructed an underclass made of robots who act as servants, policemen, and so on. But there always exists the possibility that even a mechanical underclass may revolt, and to keep humankind from becoming too dependent on robots, an ordinary human named Magnus receives training in a sort of super-karate, giving him the power to smash metal with his bare hands. Not surprisingly, Magnus's skills are in constant need to put down rebellions of robots who have either attained self-awareness or (more frequently) are being used as pawns by tyrants and conquerors.

To be sure, most of the stories are very straightforward adventure, not bothering to delve much into the sociological matrix of North-Am. This issue is one of the few to explore said matrix, though I add the caveat that politically it's almost the opposite of the three-years-later "Cloud Minders" episode of STAR TREK, in which the separation of "high" and "low" is decried.

The assault of the lower classes upon the (literally) high-living citizens takes place through the venerable device of theft, when a North-Am store is robbed of various items by the weird team of a single robot and a talking dog. The reader sees the odd thieves joined by a little girl of six or seven years, and then the trio "disappear in the dark, dangerous lowest levels of [the] continent-spanning, mile-high city of North-Am." Magnus is called in to investigate the odd crime, and the appearance of the talking dog spurs him to consult a character seen in issue #13: Danae, a scientist who specializes in using futuristic science to endow ordinary animals with special, human-like skills.

Magnus, his girlfriend Leeja, and Danae descend to the lowest level of the city, where the reader is told that the only inhabitants are "criminals and anti-socials" called "Gophs" (short for "Gophers.")
Some of the Gophs hurl stones at the vehicle of the three upper-worlders, calling them "cloud-cloddies," but this doesn't stop Magnus and company from tracking down the thieves to an ancient junkyard. There they meet the robot Junko, the talking dog Sam, and the little girl who directed them in their theft, Pert Doner. Danae recognizes Pert from an earlier encounter, in that Danae gave the girl a "neo-dog" to help Pert recover from the loss of her parents in an accident.

Pert, despite being extremely intelligent, has been traumatized by the loss of her parents and has chosen to live among the Gophs in a rejection of the life of North-Am. However, she doesn't know that the Gophs, led by a tough fellow named L'sier, are simply stringing her along in order to get her to steal for them. Thus the remainder of the story takes the form of a struggle between the "uppers" and the "lowers" for Pert's soul.

While Manning spent many years on Tarzan-- a feature which often contrasted the visceral appeal of the jungle with the indulgences of modern civilization-- MAGNUS ROBOT FIGHTER upends that formula. In this story L'sier takes a position like that of Tarzan, sneering at the pampered "cloud-cloddies" and boasting about his toughness. There's some irony in the fact that his critique is much like that of Magnus in other stories, professing the need for "eternal vigilance" against the softening effects of civilization. Here, however, Magnus is the voice of futuristic reason, and though L'sier is one of the few humans able to go toe-to-toe with the Robot Fighter, there's no real doubt that the way of the Gophs is just meaningless anarchy.

Manning is certainly no Marxist, given this portrait of the underclass. Admittedly, he does include one redeemable Goph character: a young boy named Spikey, who helped Pert construct her makeshift robot. Still, Spikey is only redeemable because he, like Pert, really does want to be a "cloud-cloddie," and he's given no ties with his own people that might prevent his defection from the lower class-- which does indeed take place in a later issue. That said, Manning's approving portrait of a high-tech civilization, one physically removed from the land, forms a significant cosmological and sociological myth. The former TARZAN artist doesn't say a lot about the disposition of Earth's animal population in this super-science world, though his introduction of "neo-animals" may be an attempt to work them into his universe. albeit by making them the beneficiaries of super-science. It's interesting that real animals given special technological powers are able to become part of the technological paradise, while humans who don't fit in are compared to animals that burrow in the dirt. Danae's mythologically derived name puzzled me a bit, since the Perseus myth doesn't have any major relevance to the theme of animals in the wild. However, I think it feasible that Manning was really thinking of a goddess with strong ties to the forests primeval: the Roman Diana, more or less a recasting of the Greek huntress-deity Artemis. This interpretation may be supported by the fact that Pert-- who is bonded to just one animal, rather than several like Danae-- bears the surname "Doner," which may also have been suggested by the name of Diana. It's also interesting that in both of their appearances the Gophs wear heavy cowled grey garments, which make the characters look less like impoverished scroungers than like members of some arcane cult.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


I became re-acquainted with this old Gary Groth quote when I re-read my early essay POMO AND PLURALISM:

academic lintheads and popcult apologists display their usual confusion of values by mistaking something of social interest for something of artistic significance

Not long after, in my ceaseless quest to the Heart of the Collective Myth-Conscious, I happened to reread Fantagraphics' 1997 collection of what I assume to be all of the extant TRASHMAN stories of the late underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez. I had read the collection years ago, and frankly didn't remember much about it, aside from the mildly enjoyable woodcut-like art-style and a lot of maundering Marxist politics.

But, upon re-reading the collection with an eye to seeing anything of symbolic depth-- wow, talk about something that has no "artistic significance" and is only relevant for "social interest!"

The TRASHMAN stories are little more than "men's adventure fiction" comics given a smattering of Marxist rhetoric about opposing oppression. Trashman, a revolutionary with a big gun and some inconsistent super-powers, fights the good fight against a vague assortment of bad guys who are supposed to represent the American political hierarchy. The first stories came out in 1968 and predicted a total social breakdown in the latter half of the 20th century, which allowed Trashman to motor around to different enclaves of tyranny and kick a lot of ass.

All of which would be fine, except that Trashman's adventures lack even the rudimentary imagination of the lesser kids' comics of the time. Trashman's opponents are largely faceless bureaucrats, whom readers of the 1960s and 1970s would see as representatives of "The Man." But Rodriguez shows no awareness of why these villains perpetrate their evil deeds-- including a little cannibalism-- except insofar as they are villains. Frankly, Mickey Spillane invested even his dime-a-dozen killers with more conviction.

There are brief touches of insight. In one story, two of Trashman's rebel-colleagues continuously insult each other in racial terms, but by story's end it's obvious that both of them are just using race to rag on each other, in typical "guy" fashion. In another tale, even more "socially significant" though no more "artistic," Trashman and another colleague are taken prisoner by a gang of female rebels: "Nasty Elaine and her She-Devils." This was at least not your typical guy-on-guy battle, though I've the impression that men's adventure mags frequently featured heroes getting captured by modern-day Amazons and the like.

It's a shame, because the minimalist design of Trashman bears some comparison with that of Gould's Dick Tracy, and it would have been interesting to see Gould's conservatism inverted by a charismatic "hero of the masses." But there's no flash in this trash, man.

Monday, February 13, 2017


Backing up a little: though I've stated that there out to be a "unity of action" between a work's overthought and underthought, that doesn't mean that the two have to agree in all respects. Given that they spring, respectively, from the didactic and from the mythopoeic potentialities of the creative mind, it would hard to imagine such perfect agreement.

After all, I established in THE UNITY OF OVERTHOUGHTS AND UNDERTHOUGHTS  that certain stories could be "underthought-dominated stories," my example being the "Origin of Metamorpho." In that story the symbolic discourse is very complex and the didactic discourse is very simple, which is entirely the reverse of the POGO sequence discussed in that essay. Since it's my project to suss out complex mythicity wherever I find it, whether accompanied by a strong didactic theme or not, I make no bones about including both (1) works that are "underthought-dominated" and (2) works where the two thoughts are equally strong: for instance, Morrison's FLEX MENTALLO.

An "overthought-dominated" work will align itself with the sphere of "thematic realism" as I've examined it in many earlier episodes, while an "underthought-dominated" work will align more with the sphere of "thematic escapism." In works like MENTALLO, though, the artist has a foot in both worlds, so that the two potentialities interact to a greater extent, as I stated in Part 2 of THE ETHIC OF THE COMBATIVE:

I have maintained, however, that the relationship between "realistic works" and "escapist works" is closer to that of conjoined siblings, dependent on one another for life.  
The course of said interaction, though, doesn't always run smooth. Note my comment in the FLEX MENTALLO review:

Wally observes that the Golden Age of superheroes was “pretty simple,” boiling down to the “Charles Atlas hard body homoerotic wish-fulfillment.”  (I disagree, but this one interpretation doesn’t undermine the general strength of Morrison’s theme.) Wally then observes that the Silver Age changed the paradigm. “Strange transformations, multiple realities, dreams, hoaxes… it was like the hard body began to turn soft...” I could carp that this description mostly applies to the line of Superman comics supervised by Mort Weisinger, with a little Julie Schwartz on the side, but it’s still a stimulating reading.

Now, Morrison has stated in interviews that sometimes he comes up with bizarre fantasies through a process akin to free association. However, there's nothing "free" about this association: it's a familiar opinion in a number of film studies I've encountered, and I feel reasonably sure that Morrison encountered some comparable opinions in his own reading. The notion of the hardbody as a homoerotic fantasy appears in Wertham's SEDUCTION, and it seems to come up almost any time a film-studies prof chooses to analyze any sort of action or adventure film. Case in point: here's a review-except describing Neal King's 1999 HEROES IN HARD TIMES, from this site:

"King's analysis remains valuable for the contribution it makes in taking seriously an oft derided and dismissed form of popular culture that speaks directly to issues of masculinity…. This book will be a useful resource for those interested in understanding how images of hyper-masculinity--the "hard man"--represent both the excess and the ordinary parts of masculinity in cinema. King's methodology is helpful in reading media texts, and his provocative interpretations of these films--particularly his readings of homosocial sadomasochism--will likely generate much discussion." 

Unlike the majority of the film-critics, Morrison isn't explicitly trying to put his heroes on the psychiatrist's couch so that he can find out what terrible traumas caused them to overcompensate by becoming superheroes. Unlike many if not all of the academic critics, Morrison doesn't seem to be indulging in a "nyah-nyah, you think you're manly when you're really GAY" sort of ressentiment. Still, Morrison is in the business of shocking his audience, so whether or not he really believes that Golden Age heroes were homoerotic wish fantasies, the appearance of such a statement in the voice of his viewpoint character suggests that it may hold at least a provisional truth for Morrison-- though to be sure, the character making the statement is a superhero fan who is not, in any obvious way, gay.

So here we have the overthought and the underthought, while definitely bound together by the narrative's unity of action, coming down on opposite sides of Adler's compensation theory. Underthought is saying that superheroes are a part of the collective unconscious, and that lines them up with the idea of "positive compensation," which benefits the organism. Overthought is saying that superheroes at least begin as homoerotic fantasies of "hard men," which seems to align with "negative compensation"-- although apparently the same fantasies can become soft and thus "feminized"-- which *might* be a type of positive compensation in Morrison's world.

The entire homosocial/homoerotic reading of adventure-fiction, of course, might be just as rooted in "negative compensation" as Dirty Harry's massive magnum or Clark Kent's blue undergarments: critics may like to feel like they've one-upped the hardbody. But in so doing, they overlook a basic principle of adventure-fiction: that characters, male and female alike, may simply get harder because the body gets harder when you exercise properly, eat all the right foods, and punch a super-villain in the mush twice a day.