Featured Post

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, September 24, 2016

NEAR MYTHS: ASTERIX AND THE BIG FIGHT

At the end of Part 5 of TWO SUBLIMITIES HAVE I, I came to this conclusion with respect to the differences between the two sublimities.

I've stated before that the three phenomalities are absolutely equal in terms of their potential for mythicity-- defined as the complexity of symbolic discourse-- and in terms of their potential for what I now define as "dynamic sublimity."  But I'm reversing myself on the first of these. The sublimity of combinatory power is not one where equality reigns.  The marvelous possesses the greatest power of this kind, followed by the uncanny, with the naturalistic possessing nothing more than the power to  recover "the freshness of vision."

But although the phenomenenality of the marvelous possesses the greatest "power," in the actual world power not used is only "potential." No one would be surprised by the observation that there exist thousands of marvelous texts whose combinatory power is almost never used-- but I'm sometimes surprised to see works that almost go out of their way not to use that power.



The French album-comic ASTERIX rates as one of the best-known postwar European comics, with a total of 36 volumes to date. I've read the series in a spotty fashion, and it always seemed a pleasant, if repetitive, comedy. But did any volumes qualify as "mythcomics?"

I still have not read the full ASTERIX corpus, but I did take samples from both early and late phases, and-- it all reads pretty much the same. The series takes place in pre-Christian Gaul (later France), at a time when the Roman Empire has dominated most of Europe, and almost all of Gaul-- except for one tiny village. Within that village, the local druid has perfected a serum that confers super-strength upon all those who drink it. Thus, whenever Roman soldiers seek to add the village to their conquests, they are simply beat to shit by the superhuman Gauls, who are usually led by diminutive warrior Asterix and his dumb-as-a-post friend Obelix.

Comedy is of course not at all hostile to myth, as I've shown in assorted posts here. But even though ASTERIX does reference bits and pieces of druid lore, it's always in a predictable sitcom manner. Most stories begin with the Gauls being threatened by the Romans or some other force. Asterix and his allies sally forth, and while they're not clobbering adversaries, they're making wry comments on other nationalities. Even with explanations, my taste for this sort of repetitive "insider" humor is limited.

The 1966 volume ASTERIX AND THE BIG FIGHT is, of those volumes I've read, the closest the series comes to a mythcomic. The authors apparently delved a little deeper into Gaulish customs than usual, setting up the action by declaring that a new chieftain can depose the chief of another village-- such as that of Asterix-- if he challenges him to single combat. The Romans arrange to have a "Gallo-Roman" ally issue a challenge, and then try to fix the fight by eliminating the druid who supplies the village with its super-serum.

The primary asset of this tale, though still pretty uninventive, does manage a few jibes at cultural appropriation in the form of fashion-conscious Gallo-Roman Crassius. But nothing is very well developed.

Friday, September 23, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN (1986)



“Let mind and soul give way to bone and blood”—Jonin of the Hand

“You only want to fire that very large gun of yours”—Elektra

With the possible exception of Dave Sim, there’s no one that ideological critics, ranging from Gary Groth to Whatisname from Seekfart, have disparaged more than Frank Miller. Sim tended to get castigated for having renounced his comparatively liberal early tendencies in favor a conservative, religiously informed stance. However, critics may have most disliked Miller for his tendency to take ideological concerns lightly. In other words, Robert Crumb was always funny because he took his biggest shots at the Right. Miller took shots at both Left and Right. Clearly that made him a reactionary, and reactionaries can’t be funny.

But though Frank Miller is best known as a maker of hardboiled crime tales and wild superhero adventures, he's much funnier than almost all of the underground cartoonists put together (except maybe Gilbert Shelton). ELEKTRA ASSASSIN, appearing about three years after the culmination of the “Resurrection” arc in DAREDEVIL and in the same year as THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, proves this by taking a quirky ironic take on one of Miller’s signature characters.

Readers of this blog will know that I never use the term “irony” in a casual manner. Although all previous stories with Elektra resonnate with the dominantly serious mythos of adventure, this eight-issue “limited series” aligns with the ludicrous mythos of irony. It is not a comedy, in which silly things happen to people in a more or less normal world. In an irony, the whole world is fundamentally crazy, no matter how characters try to make sense of it, or how they may strive to be heroes.

That said, ELEKTRA ASSASSIN is not nearly as dark an irony as some. Miller’s sardonic tone is well complemented by his collaborator, penciller Bill Sienkiewicz. If I had to compare the Miller-Siekiewicz collaboration to that of the preceding Miller-Janson work on DAREDEVIL, it might be that while one is slightly expressionstic within a cosmos dominated by realistic representation.
ELEKTRA reverses the formula. Siekiewicz began his career emulating the extreme “photo-realism” of Neal Adams--




--but he quickly moved toward an expressionistic mode, with more affinities with Surrealist Art than with the “house style” of Eighties Marvel Comics.

Like the Sienkiewicz art, the story behind ELEKTRA ASSASSIN is just as subversive of “the Marvel style," though without any of the posturing self-importance of Crumb and his ilk.  In all eight issues the internal title page supplies the series with the subtitle  “The Lost Years.” Thus the series purports to tell the inside story of what happened to Elektra between the period of the character's college years, when her father’s death caused her to leave Matt Murdock, and the period in which she came back into the life of Murdock / Daredevil in the persona of a bounty hunter who eventually becomes a paid assassin.

But the subtitle is a clever hoax. In terms of tone alone, ELEKTRA ASSASSIN exists in a different world than DAREDEVIL. Yes, most of the boxes are duly checked off. Elektra as a child experiences an erotic fixation upon her father, which will later make her incapable of dealing with his death. She seeks out a substitute father in Stick, the same mentor who trained Daredevil, and he rejects her. She tries to infiltrate the criminal ranks of the Hand, and they turn the tables on her, enhancing in her the potential for evil action. But Miller has no interest in dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s of Elektra’s continuity. Even though Miller mixes in a few standard Marvel support-characters—notably Nick Fury and his SHIELD agents—the author also elevates a reprobate to the position of the President of Marvel’s United States of America.



The cult of the Hand is very different here than in their DAREDEVIL appearances, as well. They register as little more than garden-variety “bad ninjas,” who seem to operate with no particular end except to do bad things. Here, Miller and Siekkiewicz posit that they have always been servants of a demonic figure, “the Beast,” who plots the destruction of Earth. The Hand’s leader says, “No one is innocent,” and it’s no surprise to hear a villain make this sort of pronouncement. When Elektra herself echoes it, it’s plain that the traditional superhero ethic of protecting innocents doesn’t apply in this world.

Perhaps because of the Hand’s magical influence upon her, this Elektra is not just a skilled martial arts fighter, but a super-woman, capable of punching through metal or emitting sonic screams. In other words, this is an Elektra who could never have been slain by a mundane opponent like Bullseye—but more importantly, she is Frank Miller’s meditation on the unholy joy of super-humanity.



To be sure, Elektra is still an emotional basket case, and her meditations make her sound more than a little insane. Yet, because it’s an insane world, this proves to be an asset in battling the Beast and its adherents. By dumb luck Elektra forms a mental link with the aforementioned reprobate: a ruthless, hard-ass SHIELD agent named John Garrett.





Garrett starts out as a human being, and is turned into a Six Million Dollar Operative after Elektra almost kills him. Yet because Elektra now has vast mental powers, she can dominate Garrett, virtually enslaving him as the Hand tried to enslave her—and in time, he comes to take a quasi-masochistic pleasure in her dominion. Romance as such is impossible between two such amoral, messed-up characters. However, faced with the threat of worldly destruction, they do become one of the foremost examples of the “oddball partners” trope.



The series’ closest link to DAREDEVIL is that the combination of sex and guilt follows Elektra wherever she goes. Yet in ELEKTRA ASSASSIN, their confluence is not tragic, but ironically humorous. A psychologist examining Elektra concludes that she had a “stringent Christian upbringing,” which she rejected in favor of Eastern mysticism: all of which sounds like Miller dissecting his own character as a “lapsed quasi-Catholic.” For good measure, Miller also introduces a supporting adversary, SHIELD agent Chastity McBryde, whose very name denotes sexual ambivalence, and who appears at one point dressed as a sexy nun. 

In addition, one telling exchange strongly suggests that none of Elektra’s Asian disciplines have vanquished her Christian demons. Some time after escaping the Hand, but before launching her campaign against the Beast, the lady assassin meets with a client who wants her to kill a South American president. The client comments that the official has invited in so many outside interests that he’s made the country “as a popular as a two dollar whore.” He then asks Elektra what she wants to assassinate the President, and she answers, “Two dollars.”

I mentioned the storyline’s many satires of Left and Right, but I won’t cover them in detail. I must, though, allude to the visual absurdity of American Presidential candidate Ken Wind, who has the face of a Kennedy newspaper-cutout but who secretly serves the Beast. Political passions, as much as sexual ones, are a morass of delusion-- and even an individual's attempts to dispel delusions just lead to other delusions.



To be sure, Miller and Sienkiewicz mount a lot of violence-scenarios to please the fans who expect them from a Frank Miller work. But even these are often a little off-kilter compared to action-scenes done through a representational lens. The explosions and gun-battles here have the same cartoonish intensity as Elektra’s distorted memories.




 Early in the first issue, Elektra mentions that at some point she conceives of her mother—slain by terrorists long before her father’s death—as Clytemnestra, and her father as Agamemnon. Since the mother-figure dies first, Elektra’s backstory can have no direct points of comparison with the initiating action of the Greek Theban Cycle, as this starts off with wife Clytemnestra slaying husband Agamemnon, and so incurring the wrath of Elektra. But one other parallel suggests itself. In the Greek cycle, daughter Electra dominates her brother Orestes and guilts him into doing the dirty work of killing their murderess-mother. In essence, Garrett is as much a pawn to Elektra  as Orestes was to his sister. However, Orestes’ reward for following his filial duties was to be pursued by the Furies. Garrett may not get any romance from his harsh mistress, but he does reap a much more pleasant reward than Orestes. In the world of ELEKTRA ASSASSIN, even though no one is innocent, the people who get the best toys are the ones who are in on the whole cosmic joke.

Monday, September 19, 2016

LOST IN SPACEFIGHTS PT. 1

I'm returning once more to a topic raised in the second part of THE AMPLITUDE ATTITUDE: on what occasions is it possible for a given series to achieve the combative mode, less because of an emphasis on the continual encounter of megadynamic forces than because of an emphasis upon the outward *form* of such an encounter? In the aforesaid piece I noted that the majority of the Golden Age Spectre's adventures pitted him against mundane crooks, as opposed to devils or demigods-- yet the crooks did have the effect of being "the evil that forces the undead avenger to keep up his crusade." By way of exploring this "outward form" possibility further, I'm going to devote a series of posts to a television series whose status with regard to the combative mode has always been dubious to me.

In my various reviews of STAR TREK episodes, I've made no bones about labeling the entire series as "combative," even those episodes that don't climax in combat-scenes, Few persons familiar with pop culture would doubt that the series stressed the image of Captain Kirk, and occasionally other crewmen, heroically battling super-psychics and lizard-people and so on, all firmly in the "superhero idiom."

The 1965-68 series LOST IN SPACE seems more ambivalent. In contrast to TREK, which was clearly a series with military overtones, SPACE followed the travails of a group of castaways as they bounced around various planets, sometimes resolving their conflicts through spectacular violence, sometimes not. I've decided to examine all the episodes purely in terms of how often they used spectacular violence. If an episode used such violence in a manner typical of the "superhero idiom," it will fall into the combative mode; if not, it will fall into the subcombative mode. Since I'll only talk about the climaxes, it may be possible to get through all three seasons with dispatch. "C" meets combative; "SC" subcombative.

---------------

"The Reluctant Stowaway"-- The sabotage of the Jupiter 2 culminates in the Robot going berserk and seeking to destroy the ship: there's some violence as the Robot fends off the male space-jockeys but it is defeated when Major West pulls off its power pack. (SC)

"The Derelict"-- the ship is trapped inside a derelict and must blast its way out. (SC)

"Island in the Sky"-- Jupiter-2 makes planetfall, and their land-chariot is attacked by an electrical tumbleweed. (SC)

"There Were Giants in the Earth"-- the spacefarers must fend off a gigantic Cyclops with their ray-weapons. (C)



"The Hungry Sea"-- the spacefarers seek to escape devastating waves of heat and cold on the planet (SC).

"Welcome Stranger"-- the spacefarers meet their first oddball human: Hapgood, an astronaut who preceded the Jupiter into space. Hapgood and West have a brawl but it does not occur at the climax nor influence the main plot (SC).

"My Friend, Mister Nobody"-- Penny befriends an invisible cosmic force. When she's hurt, the force goes berserk and attacks the other spacefarers. The Robot discharges energy at the creature but the group is only spared when the creature backs off. (SC)

""Invaders from the 5th Dimension"-- aliens try to take Will Robinson away, to use his brain as their new computer: they're defeated not by force of arms but because Will's humanity undermines their devices (SC).

"The Oasis"-- Doctor Smith temporarily changes into a giant (SC).

"The Sky is Falling"-- an alien family lands on the planet; mutual suspicions lead to a ray-gun fight but the quarrel is obviated by peacemaking overtures (SC).

"Wish Upon a Star"-- Smith acquires a wish-fulfilling machine; an alien comes to reclaim the machine and does so with no violence (SC).

"The Raft"-- Smith and Will are held prisoner by a plant-humanoid, who is summarily killed when John Robinson shoots the creature with his raygun. (SC)



I note that "the Raft" comes close to the combative in presenting a menace that is vanquished by violence. However, said violence is over and done with so quickly that I tend to label it "functional violence." In contrast, the incidents in "There Were Giants" shows a dramatic buildup, in which the spacefarers face considerable menace from the giant before they defeat it with their lasers. This "buildup" is essentially what I'm looking for in terms of exploring the "outward form" of the combative mode.



Saturday, September 17, 2016

THE AMAZING TRANSITIVE MEDITATIONS

Currently I have only three entries listed under the rubric "transitive effect," but said effect has been implied in many of my posts throughout the years. In this post I'll try to bring some of these jumbled concepts together, starting by repeating my favored definition of "transitive" from the Free Dictionary:
 
Expressing an action carried from the subject to the object;
requiring a direct object to complete 
meaning. Used of a verb or verb construction.
Without re-reading my blog from the beginning, I would guess that the earliest post in which the transitive effect was mentioned, but not specified, came about when I tried to decide whether or not within a given fictional work the mere presence of an *agon,* a major combat-scene, determined that the work would belong to the mythos of adventure. The 2010 essay DOMINANCE, SUBMISSION drew comparisons between two works by the author Rider Haggard: KING SOLOMON'S MINES, which does feature "a battle at the center of the plot-action," and SHE, which has some very invigorating fight-scenes but "does not center around a final battle between a hero and {an] antagonist." To reword this argument in new terms, KING SOLOMON'S MINES clearly falls into the mythos of adventure because the climax forms a "transitive effect" between the subject-- that is, the "significant value," or theme, behind the story-- and the object, consisting of the "narrative values" of plot and characters. In contrast, though, 

Though in later essays I would debate as to whether the later Haggard work SHE qualified as an "adventure" or "drama," in this essay I still favored the idea that it was an adventure-story. Yet I observed that:

...the agonistic radical in SHE has become relatively submissive compared to its manifestation in KING SOLOMON'S MINES-- though of course the agon-radical of SHE is more pronounced than it is in a work dominated by another radical. 

Or to restate it in current terms: despite all the elements that give SHE the semblance of an adventure, the possibility of a climactic conflict becomes "submissive"-- I would say "intransitive" now-- because there's a greater emphasis upon the titular character meeting her fate through sheer hubris. Thus the narrative values of plot and character, which suggest the culmination of adventure, are undermined by the significant value, the theme of Ayesha's hubris. 

I continued over the years to emphasize the importance of judging the completion of the myth-radical in terms of the narrative's climax, best epitomized by my 2013 essay-title PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX. At the same time, I've also pointed out how elements that are established at the beginning of a given work can also have an "intransitive effect."  I devoted three essays-- here, here, and here-- to the topic of 'subcombative superheroes," which is to say, characters who might seem to participate in the combative mode of the "normative superhero" but who do not do so. Part 3 is of particular interest to the manifestation of the "intransitive effect" in that I dissect three superhero comedies-- one of which is truly combative, one which is subcombative because it lacks the significant value of the combative mode, and one which is subcombative because it lacks the narrative value of the combative mode.

I've also devoted a great deal of space to the transitive or intransitive effects of characters who are only allies to the central heroes, rather than belonging to an ensemble of featured characters. PASSION FOR THE CLIMAX makes reference to the final scenes of Tim Burton's 2012 DARK SHADOWS. The film ends with the main character Barnabas being defeated  by his foe Angelique; however, that villain is then destroyed by forces that are strongly allied to the protagonist. Another example appears in my review of the 1968 film BARBARELLA. The heroine displays an efficient level of dynamicity when she shows off her ability to fight off foes with a ray-gun, but it is the rebels she inspires, rather than her personally, who defeat the main villain.

However, in these examples the transitive effect is only possible because the main protagonists demonstrate that they participate in the highest, "megadynamic" level of dynamicity, even though, going by the categories established here, Barbarella would only be on the "exemplary" level of megadynamicity, while the Burton-Barnabas would be on the "exceptional" level.

In contrast, I have repeatedly demonstrate an "intransitive effect" when the main hero is not megadynamic, even if he or she is aided by megadynamic allies, as seen in this essay. where the "underperforming" protagonists of DOCTOR WHO and of MIGHTY MAX receive aid from megadynamic assistants, respectively "K-9" and "Norman." The same principle applies to stand-alone works like 1962's THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES, where the titular strongman is outfought by a modern muscle-guy allied to the weakling Stooges. The sense that the central hero rates only as a mesodynamic or microdynamic figure undermines the significant value of the combative, even when said hero may briefly command megadynamic forces, as seen in my analyses of the "genie-allies" seen in the 1934 film BABES IN TOYLAND and the 1961 film THE WONDERS OF ALADDIN.  The latter film is of particular relevance because its subcombative conclusion is clearly derived from the climax of the 1924 THIEF OF BAGDAD-- which is, of course, maintains a combative mode because the hero himself is of a megadynamic nature.



Friday, September 16, 2016

AFFECTIVE FREEDOM, COGNITIVE RESTRAINT

                    
 In my 2013 essay AFFECTIVITY, MEET EFFICACY, I focused upon Ernst Cassirer distinction between “causality” and “efficacy.” Causality, the philosopher said, represented humanity’s ability to think about cause and effect in a rational, discursive manner, and from this we get the first stirrings of early philosophy, and later, the developments of science. Efficacy, however, belonged to the language of myth: it depends on a blurring of the distinctions between the objective and subjective worlds.

 “…the world of mythical ideas… appears closely bound up with the world of efficacy. Here lies the core of the magical worldview… which is indeed nothing more than a translation and transposition of the world of subjective emotions and drives into a sensuous, objective existence.

One mythical idea to which Cassirer refers occasionally is myth’s view of the origins of the world. Some mythical tales hold the world comes into being only because some giant being—Ymir in Norse stories, Purusha in Hindu stories—is torn apart, so that the different parts of the giant’s body become the earth, the seas, the moon, etc. Within the scope of these narratives, there is no attempt to provide a rationale as to why the world had to made from the flesh and bones of a giant. It is true purely because it confers the aura of human associations upon the whole of creation, even those aspects of creation that may seem entirely alien to human experience. This is what I’ve called “affective freedom,” humankind’s ability to imagine almost anything, whether it accords with experience or not.

Rational conceptions of causal relations, of course, could not care less about the aura of subjective emotions and drives: the desire is to extrapolate a closed system of relations that depend entirely on physical force: CAUSE A exerts FORCE B upon OBJECT C, resulting in RESULT Z. This tendency to rely exclusively upon material experience is one that I’m now terming “cognitive restraint.” Just as in psychology “the affective” and “the cognitive” describe complementary aspects of human mentality, “cognitive restraint” exists in a complementary relationship with “affective freedom.” In other words, human beings are entirely defined by neither: we need both the ability to imagine what seems impossible and to discourse about what we believe to be immediately possible.

I’ve written a lot on my blog about the concept of freedom, and it’s a major reason as to why I’ve devoted so much blog-space to such obscure concepts as “the combative mode” and the various forms of phenomenality, sublimity, and so on. But 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.

Human beings, we may fairly deduce, relate to the world in different ways than other animals. We cannot know what goes on in the head of a lion when it stalks a bird, and then fails to catch the bird because the latter flaps its wings and flies away, We can fairly guess that the lion is frustrated, and possibly with its limited mentality it might entertain the wish to continue chasing the bird into the air. But that would seem to be as far as a lion’s imagination could go.

We also cannot really know what thoughts may have passed through the mind of a Neanderthal hunter in the same situation. Maybe our caveman stalker had no thoughts at all when his prey escaped. Yet we can at least reasonably suspect that the primitive fellow may have entertained the idea of what it would like to be a bird: to sprout wings and chase the bird into its own territory. And once he had this thought—say, for argument’s sake, that no one had entertained the thought before him—he might not be limited to thinking only about filling his belly with bird-flesh. He nay have started to think about what it would feel like to fly, to be a bird; to soar above the limits of other cavemen. At this point he probably doesn’t  think about imitating the bird by designing his own pair of wings, but he may decide to translate this vagrant imaginings into a mythic form. The caves at Lascaux attest to some sort of mental alchemy that combined man and bird, even if today we can only look at drawings of bird-man hybrids and label them “portraits of shamans.”  They may have been just that, but their original context may matter less than their role in determining humankind’s affective freedom.

In one conversation I mentioned that humankind’s advancements in powered flight would have been impossible without this sort of internal, subjective appreciation for the possible thrill of flying. My opponent simply said something along the lines, “Yeah, but powered flight wouldn’t have been possible without science and logical thinking.”  Quite true; as far as achieving an effect in the physical world, wishing never makes it so. But my opponent in my opinion missed the point: the wish makes everything else thinkable. To the earthbound human who can only run and jump and swim, the idea of flying cannot be imagined as having some practical applications—not even just that of catching birds—until *after * it has been re-imagined as something that the earthbound human can imagine bringing into his own “sensuous, objective experience.” 

One of the greatest “myths” propounded by empiricist-types has been that of the “caveman-engineer:” the primitive who instantly sees some practical advantage in making a new type of spear or a rooftop, because he’s so much more attuned to the scientific principles in the physical world, even if he doesn’t have a scientific system as such. This very selective conception of the early scientist was of course an anachronism: an imagining of some 18th-century scientist born before his time; one who would be in no way influenced by the myths and religion of his time. This was one of many verbal strategies used by empiricists to tout the supreme importance of cognitive restraint, of valuing only practical cause and effect, and to consign myth to the dust-bin of “failed science.”

The mistake of utilitarianism—that the only things that matter are those which have a defined use—is one that depends upon the formulations of cognitive restraint. A utilitarian might allow some niggling truth to my “flying caveman” example, but he would view the caveman’s “fancy of flight” to be relevant to the human condition only because it did lead to a useful development. In contrast, the utilitarian would not be impressed by, say, Tolkien’s example of “arresting strangeness:” of imaging a world with a green sun. Even in the world of fiction, the world of the green sun would have no relevance unless it illustrated the restraints on physical life expressed through scientific fact. Thus, if autrhor Hal Clement devoted a book to explaining the makeup of a fictional world that happened to have a green sun for some scientific reason, then that, and that alone, would have relevance to utilitarianism.

What I’ve repeatedly emphasized that the world of affective freedom is a whole package: that the ability to imagine impossible things is crucial to human nature, whether it leads to specific inventions or not. Depicting a shaman as a bird-human hybrid may not have led directly to any fantasies of personal flight, and thus the shaman-dream might have no relevance at all to the development of powered flight. I argue, rather, that whether the subjective outpourings of myth and fiction do or don't lead to useful developments, all of them are equally important in determining the meaning of human freedom.

MYTHCOMICS: "RESURRECTION" (DAREDEVIL #187-190, 1982-83)




"The road of the emotions leads me to True Philosophy."-- Rousseau (as quoted by Poe).

"Resurrection" is the title of the story in DAREDEVIL #190, the final collaboration between Frank Miller and Klaus Janson in their highly regarded rejuvenation of the blind superhero's franchise. In addition, this title was also assigned to five issues of the comic as they were collected in the fourth issue of the 1984 reprint THE ELEKTRA SAGA. The issues in that collection were #182 and #187-190, but as should be apparent from my title, I don't regard #182 as part of the second and last "Elektra arc." The story in #182, "She's Alive," is a brilliant coda to the previous issue, in which the villain Bullseye murders the lady assassin, and it's also a great "reverse-homage" to the 1981 noir-film BODY HEAT. However, if "Resurrection" can be used as the title of any arc, it should be the one beginning in #187, wherein the titular hero once more encounters his old mentor Stick, Stick's "good ninja" allies, and the "bad ninjas" of the Hand. The aforesaid villains initiate the action of the arc, first by declaring war on Stick's small ninja-clan, and then by deciding to resurrect the dead Elektra, so that she will become their obedient servant.

In this essay I stated that Miller's early Elektra-stories failed to make her character dramatically or mythically consistent. However, by late 1982 Miller's scripts showed major strides, perhaps in part because he had ceded penciling duties to Janson, who had supplied inks to Miller's art during their run. In the early stories Miller had only made intriguing but unsatisfying references to his character's psychology. Only after her death, it seemed, did Miller really grapple with the character's soul.

As noted before, the psychological concept of the "Electra complex" was intended to be the mirror-image of Freud's most famous formulation, though Freud rejected the term, insisting that "Oedipus complex" ought to apply to females as well as to males. Yet one should not assume that Miller was entirely guided by his knowledge of psychology, and the "Resurrection" arc shows that Elektra's nature is better glossed by the concepts of religion and myth. At the outset of issue #190-- a prologue that shows Elektra in the years immediately after her father's death and her parting from Matt (Daredevil) Murdock-- she hears the following psycho-profile of herself from her sensei:

Your dream, in college, was to save the world. But alas, that world was a fabrication-- ripped down by the senseless, pointless murder of your father. You see the world now as a chaotic place, huge and terrible. You hate it.

Many superheroes, including Daredevil, become crusaders in response to pain and humiliation, but the idealistic cast of their adventures, of their mission to save innocents, suggests that they are still able to love the world that hurt them. Elektra's morbid fixation upon her pain is more characteristic of the vengeful super-villain. At the point in time when her sensei drops this pearl of wisdom, Elektra has just been denied the chance to join the "good ninja" clan of Stick, because, as Stick says, "You ain't clean. Yer full of pain and hate."

The emphasis on mental cleanliness is one element that shows how Miller's account of good and evil diverges from the world of materialistic psychology. Elektra's problem is not something that can be solved by sublimation or "the talking cure," and her sensei's advice-- that she should seek to benefit the world despite Stick's rejection-- goes unheard. Having been unable to prevent the death of her father, she wants to prove herself to Stick. She chooses to infiltrate Stick's enemies, the Hand-cult. The evil ninjas are prepared for her, and they seduce her to the ways of evil, in part by causing her to slay her own sensei (this time, a father-death for which she is directly responsible). Though at a later date Elektra breaks away from the Hand's influence, and becomes a more-or-less-legal bounty hunter, Miller's script implies that she never entirely escapes this pollution. With this concept of spiritual pollution in mind, her previous actions become relatively consistent. In the early issues she keeps calling Daredevil her "enemy," long before he's done anything to merit it. The later issues make clear that her former lover represents the altruistic ascension she failed to complete, so that he becomes her "enemy" in a spiritual sense. This failure is given a tangible manifestation at the beginning of #190, when Elektra falls during her attempt to climb the great mountain where Stick's clan dwells.

By now the astute reader will have noticed that I'm not giving a blow-by-blow of the many twists and turns of the arc from issue #187 to #190, much less the various subplots.  Such plot-points are less important than Miller's overall thematic project. Within these issues, Miller elevated the base trope of a conflict between "good ninjas" and "bad ninjas"-- a trope which appeared in dozens of cheap 1980s flicks as the cinematic "ninja subgenre" became popular-- and used the vague Eastern mysticism associated with ninjas to meditate on the metaphysical interactions of good and evil.

In some Judeo-Christian traditions, the most prevalent role of the "resurrection concept" appears with respect to the sussing-out of individual good and evil. During the End Times, all the people who have ever lived will be physically restored, so that they can be judged as deserving either eternal bliss or eternal damnation. But there are no gods in the Miller DAREDEVIL, though the two ninja-clans eventually function as angels and devils, struggling over the fate of the late female assassin. That said, the parallel is not exact. The devils want to doom Elektra to further damnation, as she will presumably serve them as a zombie slave. Stone-- the only good ninja to survive the battle of issue #189-- wants only to destroy her body so that the Hand cannot use her.

Daredevil, despite his diabolical name, is the only one who believes in Elektra's essential goodness. In issue #190 he and his allies invade the Hand's hideout-- fittingly, in an abandoned Christian church-- as the evil ninjas attempt to revive Elektra's corpse. While Daredevil and Stone are in battle with the Hand-henchmen, the blind hero hears a single heartbeat from the body of his former beloved. Displaying the obsessional quality Miller lent him throughout the run, Daredevil gets the idea that he can use his own latent psychic talents to fully revive Elektra. In so doing, he fails to guard Stone's back, so that Daredevil's ally is wounded, possibly in a mortal sense. Both of them are only saved from the Hand only by the intervention of the Kingpin's thugs.

The thugs usher Daredevil out of the church, but Stone remains behind, preparing to chop Elektra's head to make sure her body is never misused. Then through his own talents Stone divines that "somehow, in [Murdock's] futile attempt to revive her, he has purged her. She is clean." Stone, wounded and weary of the life of a good ninja, sacrifices his life by discorporating, transferring his energy into Elektra's semi-resurrected body, so that she revives and steals away without anyone seeing her.


Again, no psychologist would credence this method of healing, in which the patient's soul-pollution is cleansed from outside her consciousness, by the good intentions of the patient's former lover. But Elektra's true way out of her dead-end complex-- the way that she should have taken in her normal life-course-- was to invest in those still living, particularly her lover. Significantly, the spiritual energy given her by Daredevil allows Elektra to return to the mountain where Stick's ninjas once made their home, and to successfully scale it at last. It's not clear what she will do from then on, aside from seeking to stay out of Matt Murdock's life (since it is implicitly too late for her to follow the 'plunge back into life" course), but her ascension signifies the advancement of her spirit.



That said, Miller's scenario does not entirely damn the unrighteous. Daredevil and his allies only find the abandoned church because the Kingpin's informants discover its location, and as said earlier, the Kingpin's gun-toting thugs destroy the Hand in the end, though one presumes that this is only because the more heroic types have served as distractions. The Kingpin, a devil-figure in his own right, confers this largesse only to eliminate the Hand as a competing force of evil, and to force his enemy Daredevil to do his bidding. "We need each other, Daredevil," says the criminal mastermind with Mephistophelean sophistry, "We are partners after a fashion. We are the power in this city."

Miller never recounted Elektra's further adventures, and he parted from Marvel Comics when they did so. His next (and final) work on Daredevil was devoted to declaring war between Daredevil and the Kingpin, which might be taken as his follow-up to Kingpin's speech, in which hero and villain have become mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, within the span of the "Resurrection Arc," good and evil are inextricably tied together, as all good abstractions-- angel and devil, hero and villain, life and death-- should naturally be.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

NEAR MYTHS: SAND SAREF AND ELEKTRA

I've been re-reading Frank Miller's first run on DAREDEVIL to suss out its possible status as a myth-comic.Though I've not finished the re-read, it's evident that most of the issues are strong in terms of the kinetic and dramatic potentialities, there's not a single symbolic thread weaving through all of the issues. The closest thing to such a thread is Miller's famous character Elektra, who, as Miller himself has admitted, owes something to a 1950 SPIRIT story by Will Eisner.

A pause for confession: over 15 years ago, I played around with putting together a book proposal that would have focused on myth-analytical essays. One of the stories I sought to analyze at the time was that Eisner story, a two-part tale focusing on how the law-abiding hero found himself pitted against a criminal who had once been the love of the Spirit's juvenile years. (Note: the story had originally been designed as a stand-alone work featuring a new Eisner character, John Law, but Law's comic book never got off the ground, so the artist reworked the pages into a Spirit episode.)

I haven't reread the old essay, but I wouldn't seek to rework it today. In my current view, the Eisner story lacks the symbolic amplitude that I look for in determining a mythcomic, and so only qualifies as a "near myth." The single mythic idea of the Eisner story is that "best friends divided by fate." The trope was a favorite one among many melodramatic crime-films that appeared in the Classic Hollywood of Eisner's youth, perhaps best exemplified by the 1938 film ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES.

Eisner chose to make the law itself the factor that divided two young people, a young law-abiding boy with a somewhat shady uncle, and a young girl with a cop-father.




Sand Saref then turns against the rule of law as represented by her father, while young Denny Colt, the future Spirit, becomes dedicated to keeping order to atone for his uncle's misdeed. The aptly named Sand soon drifts away from young Denny and embarks upon a career that's not initially criminal, though she's largely defined by her own self-interest. When she returns to America, she becomes affiliated with a scheme to smuggle a postwar germ-warfare weapon. The Spirit shows up and foils the scheme, but she recognizes him despite his mask and saves his life. In return, the hero lets her get away. The lady crook and the crimefighter encountered one another a few more times before the end of the SPIRIT feature, but this noir-ish ode to lost romance remains the most significant story for Sand Saref.



Long before Elektra ever appeared, Daredevil's backstory turned upon the hero's paternal influence. Boxer Jack Murdock pressured his son Matt to excel at school and become a lawyer so that Matt would never get bogged down in the dubious world of the fight-game. After the father's murder, Matt Murdock chooses to both disobey his father and to imitate him, by becoming a superhero devoted to fighting evildoers. However, in Miller's added backstory in DAREDEVIL #168, Murdock does more than study at college: he also meets his first love, Elektra Natchios. Everything goes well until terrorists take Elektra's ambassador father hostage. Murdock, who has not yet assumed the Daredevil identity, tries to rescue the ambassador, but the man is killed by the "friendly fire" of the local police.



Though Elektra has as much reason as Sand Saref to be cheesed off at the law, Miller chose not to follow that trope, though Elektra becomes just as self-oriented as Sand.

In Classical mythology, the original Electra plots the downfall of her mother for the latter's murder of her husband, Electra's father Agamemnon. The Greek character does not have an "Electra complex" in the modern sense of the word. Still, according to some theorists she's mad at her mother not just for killing Daddy, but because Electra can't be legally married with her father dead. I can't judge the truth of this, but in Miller's continuity, Elektra rebels not against the abstract law but against the possibility of romance with Matt Murdock-- much less with a crime-fighter like his alter ego, Daredevil.



Perhaps because Miller originally meant Elektra as a one-shot character, he never quite articulates the conflict between her and Daredevil in the fullest sense. When the two first meet she's not doing anything illegal; just pursuing her interests as a bounty-hunter, and though she does clout Daredevil to keep him out of her business, she also binds one of his wounds while he's out-- and that's before knowing that the red-clad adventurer is her old flame Murdock.

Perhaps thanks to fan-response, Miller chose to integrate the character into his ongoing DAREDEVIL saga. Yet in re-reading the early issues, they've quite frustrating in terms of dramatic motivation. In issues #174-76. Elektra twice thinks of Daredevil as an enemy, even though (1) he's done nothing against her, (2) he's professed his love to her and even tells her about a newly acquired physical weakness, and (3) she comes to his aid, or that of his friends. She does contravene Daredevil's code of no-killing by slaughtering the ninjas of The Hand, who are belatedly mentioned as a band of assassins who trained Elektra in the martial arts. Yet given that they're all murderers, it's hard to imagine the hero shedding any tears over their deaths.



At the conclusion of #176, though, Elektra does deliberately kill the defenseless boss of the Hand ninjas-- who, incidentally, put out a hit on Elektra because she chose not to sleep with him (another rejection of sex, albeit not romance). Daredevil witnesses this and threatens to take her to jail, but he faints before he can make the attempt. Again Elektra spares his life, and yet, for some reason, this threat pushes her over the edge. The sai-wielding siren suddenly accepts the Kingpin's offer to be his new assassin, and following this decision, readers do see her kill an innocent, as well as making attempts on the lives of reporter Ben Urich, Murdock's friend Foggy Nelson, and Daredevil himself. This sequence of exploits ends in DD #181, when she's killed by an even more ruthless assassin, the psychotic Bullseye.

A later sequence displays more mythic potential, and will be addressed in a future essay. But as far as the issues up to #181 are concerned, Elektra's dramatic arc mirrors the sudden criminal turnabout of Sand Saref in her original story. In a purely dramatic sense, neither sudden development proves satisfying. However, Miller does explore deeper symbolic currents with Elektra than Eisner ever did with any of his femmes fatales-- as future essays will show.