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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

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

Saturday, May 27, 2017

THE CONFEDERACY AND THE DUNCES

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Wednesday, May 24, 2017

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

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



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



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



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



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



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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

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




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

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



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



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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

A PHENOTYPE PHENOMENON

I've been giving thought to the Rachel Malonson story. In contrast to the situation of Rachel Dolezal, whose claim to black identity was not supported by her genetic heritage, Malonson had a black father and a white mother, and favored her mother in terms of skin tone. When she won the Miss Black University of Texas pageant-- which is explicitly open to persons with biracial status-- various comments were made about her not being "black enough." In other words, these protesters chose to define blackness in terms of an observable phenotype, in contrast to her genetic heritage. By this reasoning, Barack Obama, who has the exact same proportion of black/white parentage, *is* black because he displays a "black" phenotype, while Malonson is not.

The great irony of these half-witted protests is that in the long view they are criticizing the very right that the proponents of the 1960s civil rights movement fought for: the right of racial intermarriage, supported by breakthrough legislation like 1967's "Loving vs. Virginia." Further, the protesters are also guilty of emulating, however unintentionally, the same mindset favored by the opponents of racial intermarriage.

All U.S. laws that prohibited such intermarriages were also concerned with preserving the integrity of a certain phenotype. Long before the United States became an independent republic, early Americans knew that an offspring between one phenotypically black parent and one phenotypically white parent might display a white phenotype. The legal reaction was to prohibit such unions, in large part to keep the white race "pure."

The only way in which this differs from the position of Malonson's attackers is the degree of economic advantage. Intolerant American whites wanted to keep all property out of the hands of anyone who didn't pass a purity test. In contrast, intolerant American blacks are more concerned with keeping a set of privileges-- such as the "bragging rights" of winning a beauty contest for black women-- to be exclusive to women who meet a certain phenotype. I am not aware of any circumstance in which phenotypic-blacks have tried to block non-phenotypic blacks from owning any sort of property.

Nevertheless, once racial intermarriage became legal, American blacks as much as anyone ought to know that there could be no way of predicting which liaisons would be phenotypically black. In some subcultural black societies, blacks of dark hue sometimes experienced discrimination from light-skinned blacks, even if if the latter were not light enough to "pass." What we are seeing now is a tendency to replace one injustice with another, by claiming that there has so much history of dark-skinned blacks getting bad treatment that privileges associated with black subcultures cannot be allowed to anyone who may not have shared that history of suffering, whether that person is truly guilty of "passing" or not.

The more things change...


QUICK SEXUALIZATION POST

Posted this on CBR, not expecting much discussion though.

___________

In the last six-seven years the Beat published someone's claim that old 1940s statistics proved that there were actually more girl than boy comics-readers in a particular time-frame. Not hard to believe, if it's true that girls' reading-skills generally mature more quickly than those of boys.

So this makes me wonder: if there were more young female readers, isn't it likely that they liked seeing the male form on display, seeing it "objectified?" Of course in those days the male heroes, costumed and non-costumed, weren't usually the boulder-shouldered types we've become used to today: the comic-book artists tended to pattern themselves after comic-strip guys like Foster, Raymond, and Caniff. Frederic Wertham was one of the few persons to document any reader-responses from the Golden Age-- though his records are extremely suspect-- and he was very much in line with modern prejudices: pointing the finger only at the sexualization of female characters for male audiences, and paying no attention to the converse-- though of course he had a lot to say about the supposed sexualization of male characters for male audiences.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A FURIOUS ENSEMBLE

Long ago, when I first saw Brian dePalma's 1978 adapation of John Farris's 1976 novel THE FURY, I took note of its extensive violence but gave no thoughts as to whether it qualified as a combative horror-film. Farris' book, like Stephen King's 1980 FIRESTARTER, concerned a secret government project oriented upon capturing and weaponizing persons with strong psychic power. King certainly did provide enough of a "combative contest" between his titular "monster" and the evil agency to qualify as combative, as did the 1984 film. But what about THE FURY?

Before re-screening the film, I decided to read Farris's novel for the first time. Like the dePalma film, the book is very violent but ultimately not a work in the combative mode. However, Farris gave me far more pause in determining who the "centric" characters were.

SPOILERS FOR ANYONE ACTUALLY READING

Three characters get the majority of Farris's attention, although he devotes a lot of characterization (more than King does) to his villains, a research group with the fitting acronym MORG. Two of the characters, Gillian Bellaver and Robin Szandza, are teenaged psychics who were once bonded through reincarnation. The third is Peter Szandza, father of Robin, who once worked for MORG but turned on his bosses, largely because they learned of his son's fabulous powers and wanted to enslave him. Robin is not initially in MORG's clutches at the start of the book, but Peter, whom Robin believes to be dead, is looking for the fourteen-year-old, and so are the villains. Robin is in psychic contact with Gillian but she considers him an "imaginary friend" and doesn't have any conscious awareness of her special abilities. Eventually, after a lot of spy-type shooting and masquerades, MORG manages to lure Robin into their clutches, where they attempt, in a roundabout way, to brainwash him. Peter learns about Gillian and enlists her help in trying to free his son. Unfortunately it all ends up badly. Robin's exercise of his talents makes him into a "bad monster," as against "good monster" Gillian. Both Peter and Robin end up dead. Gillian kills the nasty head of MORG and waits to be rescued by her parents. Farris wrote three sequels to the FURY storyline, none of which I've read, but he didn't commence this series of novels until 2001.

So my critical question becomes: just because Farris spent roughly equal amounts of time on these three characters-- are they all centric characters? Certainly I can have no objection to presenting characters who have opposed interests as belonging to a fictional work's ensemble, since in my last sizable essay on the subject,  I cited types like King Kong and Godzilla as belonging to the two-monster ensemble of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

My purely subjective verdict, though, is to say that only Peter Szandza and Gillian Bellaver are really centric characters. Even when an ensemble includes a character with whom the audience is not supposed to like-- such as Godzilla-- there must be some sense that the character, while destructive or evil, is still in some way fascinating.

Robin Szandza doesn't quite reach this level, because his transition from innocent boy to destructive monster seems constructed less as its own self-sustaining arc than as a means of providing a problem for Peter and Gillian. Further, after Robin dies, his last act is to more or less spark Gillian into using her powers offensively-- so that even his one good act is all about empowering another character.

I would assume that Gillian is also a major character in the sequels, but am not sure at this point if I'll invest further time in the FURY universe, despite having basically enjoyed the first novel.

ADDENDUM: I assumed wrongly: for the 2001 book, Robin is revealed to be alive after all, but many years have gone by and Gillian has passed on, though she's left behind a psychic daughter to get into lots more trouble.




Wednesday, May 17, 2017

NEAR MYTHS: "THE LEGION OF SUPER-MONSTERS" (ADVENTURE COMICS #309, 1963)

Once more, a quick reiteration of my definition of "near myth:"

..."a near-myth" is a part of a narrative that sustains a mythic kernel of meaning, but does not become unified into a fully-developed "underthought" throughout the narrative. [the latter being the definition of a fully consummate myth]
A quick personal note about this week's "near myth:" although as a sometime Legion fan I was rather hyped to see this story when I read old ad-hype for it, I never found a decently-priced copy of the original issue until recently, nor did I happen to buy the relevant Archives collection with the story. I'm rather glad I waited, because it's the sort of appealing but cheesy story that should be read in its original form.

"Legion of Super-Monsters" loses the cover spot to a much shorter Superboy story. Said tale's only interest is that it speaks to a psychological myth that DC Comics had exploited since the Golden Age and used heavily in the Silver Age: the fear-of-replacement myth. Comics-stories of this ilk usually focused on the starring heroes about to be replaced or marginalized in some manner, and they tend to be fairly one-note.




Closely related to the "replacement myth," though, is the "exclusion myth," in which a starring character finds himself left the odd man out in some desirable group of society.  Indeed, the first story in which the Legion appeared dealt with Superboy being excluded from potential membership.


Superboy's exclusion is naturally overturned by story's end as a Big Misunderstanding. In "Super-Monsters," though, the Legion decides to exclude a candidate, one Jungle King, because he shows a lack of caution in the use of his power to control animals:



Jungle King gets mad and decides to form his own Legion, made of wild alien beasts who are compelled to obey his commands. Taking the alternate cognomen Monster Master, he embarks upon a career of crime, using the fabulous powers of his creatures against society, thus provoking the Legion of Super'Heroes to come after him.



In their initial encounters, the human Legion has no small trouble in dealing with the monster-Legion...



 ..and to make things seemingly worse, one of the members who passed the group's standards, Bouncing Boy, messes up by exposing himself at a critical point. However, he gets to redeem himself in a sense, using strategy to defeat a beast of much greater power.




I said that the replacement myths were usually one-note, and Edmond Hamilton's "exclusion-myth" script isn't much better. Not only are the Legion's standards validated by Bouncing Boy's success, Monster Master is shown to be a hypocrite who makes a snap judgment about one of the beasts that "auditions" for the monster-legion. The villain rejects a "gas creature" because the critter's not impressive enough, but the beast gets pissed about its exclusion and subjects Monster Master to a fatal "gas attack."



Still, though "Super-Monsters" is a little preachy in this regard, it does have some pleasingly bizarre sci-fi monsters, and that makes up for a lot.