Saturday, August 27, 2016

MYTHOS MEDITATIONS



I've recently finished Lev Grossman's MAGICIANS trilogy, which probably deserves another full reading to take in all of its themes with respect to magical thinking, free will, and so on. But for now I'm only moved to analyze the trilogy in terms of its mythos.

I won't go into as much detail as I have on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE about Northrop Frye's four "mythoi," or patterns of literary myth, but I want to suss out which of these patterns best describes the trilogy.

In the essay FANTASIES OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE I examined the possible categorizations for Wally Wood's KING OF THE WORLD. That graphic work, like MAGICIANS, has the surface appearance of aligning with the adventure-mythos, because the plots involve "invigorative elements" like magical battles, explorations of strange worlds, etc.

I ended up viewing KING OF THE WORLD as an "irony" despite all of these elements, because so much of KING was devoted to undermining the conventional meanings of adventure-tropes. And MAGICIANS could be interpreted as an ironic take on the straightforward fantasy-tropes found in C.S, Lewis's NARNIA books, whose influence Grossman has cited.

However, Grossman seems to be pursuing different themes than simple dissimulation.  His young, college-age-ish protagonists have neither the innocence nor the "good vs. evil" designs of Harry Potter. But like Potter-- whose mythos I've pegged as a "drama"-- they are characters who are largely defined by the radical of *purgation,* as they slough off their old, imperfect personas and work clumsily toward new, somewhat more mature ones.

More later, possibly.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #58



The high-flying Hillman characters Airboy and Sky Wolf started out in separate features during WWII, and I don't have the impression that they crossed over much-- certainly not to the extent they did when Eclipse Comics revived most of the Hillman franchises in the 1980s. But I found this postwar adventure, from AIRBOY vol. 3, #12 (1947), to be of more than passing interest.

The scene above may remind some of the typical "Marvel-heroes-meet-and-beat-cute" schtick. In the story Airboy has fallen under the spell of a master hypnotist, and must encourage his friend Sky Wolf to knock him out in order to get him out of the villain's aegis. As a bonus, Airboy's sometime girlfriend the Valkyrie appears in the story as well, making, as I recall, her last Golden Age appearance.

The villain is one of a group of "Tartar" warriors-- all drawn to look like Vikings-- who have been somehow brought back to life by atomic testing. Their mesmeric leader is named "Black Tamerlane," named for the partly-Mongolian conqueror of the 13th century. The modern villain's idea of bringing a new level of conflict to a war-weary world was a pretty common trope in postwar popular entertainment, though it was unusual to see that goal conflated with the old "Mongol peril" trope.

The whole story appears at Digital Comics Museum here.

Friday, July 1, 2016

THOUGHTS ON RALPH BAKSHI AND THE HISTORY OF ANIMATION



I don't claim to be an expert on either the famous animator or animation's varied history. That said, my recent re-screening of Bakshi's notorious semi-animated flop THE COOL WORLD moves me to ponder some aspects of Bakshi's history in the world of American cartoons.

First, it should be said that although there had been various "adult" live-action films dating back to the pre-Code Hollywood era, American producers and audiences did not seem to desire adult material in animated cartoons. One might occasionally catch some slightly risque content in the Fleischer Brothers' BETTY BOOP or in the post-war shorts of Tex Avery, but the emphasis was on keeping all animated cartoons "mainstream," so that they could be enjoyed by kids as well as adults.

The very nature of the short cartoon, for that matter, mitigated against adult content, particularly when the format was worked out in Hollywood's silent era. Before dialogue was possible, at least beyond the level of the occasional intertitle card, the main charm of short cartoons was what one author termed the "metamorphosis gag," where something in the cartoon magically transformed into something else, usually for no reason except that some character wanted it to do so. There are exceptions to this assertion, like Windsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur," but it seems to me that the basic paradigm was that of the Fleischer's "Out of the Inkwell" series of 1918-29, in which the animators called attention to the cartoons' ability to take any number of peculiar shapes and sizes.




Sound changed the paradigm. Though there were a few cartoons during this period that eschewed verbal elements of any kind-- Chuck Jones' "Inki" series, for one-- sound meant that characters had to express themselves; had to become more consistent, even at the Fleischer studios. Metamorphosis gags still abounded-- just before Popeye hit Bluto, the sailor-man's arm-muscles would change into the Rock of Gibraltar or somesuch-- but now the gags had to work in concert with the established characters of Popeye, Bluto and Olive Oyl. Before sound, an animator like McCay might *choose* to keep a character consistent, but the greater tendency was toward gags for their own sake, and characters like Koko (seen above) and Felix the Cat, who largely existed to set up the gags.

Norman Klein's book SEVEN MINUTES goes into much more detail than I can here as to the way American animation developed, taking on more "sentimental" dimensions due in large part to the influence of Walt Disney-- but whether the cartoons pursued sentiment or slapstick, they were all still largely mainstream in tone.

Possibly only after 1966, when the MPAA replaced Hollywood's production code with a system whose ratings identified adult content in films, was it possible for Ralph Bakshi to pioneer the first full-length animated cartoons with an adult sensibility-- two of which, FRITZ THE CAT and HEAVY TRAFFIC, were monetarily successful. But many factors mitigated against even live-action adult films, and so Bakshi's later attempts at producing adult animation features lost steam, even as figures like Michael Eisner and Don Bluth resurrected the popularity of all-ages cartoon-flicks. Thus when Baskhi completed COOL WORLD-- which to date remains his swan song in the world of animated feature films-- he was in essence selling HEAVY TRAFFIC to an audience that had come to expect LITTLE MERMAID-- or, more appropriately, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, since COOL WORLD took at least some of its conceptual fire from ROGER's success at blending live-action and animation.

It's impossible to know what Bakshi's COOL WORLD might have turned out like, had he been able to execute his original idea. A Wikipedia essay asserts that once a new screenplay was forced upon Bakshi, he didn't even show the new screenplay to many of his animators, instructing them to simply come up with whatever cartoon-gags they wanted to do. This undoubtedly accounts for the fact that almost all of the gags in COOL WORLD are, unlike those of ROGER RABBIT, extremely disjointed and irrelevant to the plot, such as it is.

Probably more by dumb luck than by design, COOL WORLD ended up being a de facto salute to the hoary days of silent animation, when little beyond metamorphic sight gags, cut free from considerations of plot or character, abounded in American animation. I don't think for a moment that Bakshi intended to make such an homage, he grew up in the 1950s, at a time when there were no venues where anyone could generally see silent cartoons. But during his apprenticeship at Terrytoons he was working within a very minimalist system of cartoon-making. somewhat akin to animation in its silent years. Possibly Bakshi's creative disinterest in COOL WORLD may have contributed to the divorce between the gag-humor and the plot and characters that had been forced upon the director.

COOL WORLD status as an "accidental homage" does not, of course, make it a good film, and there's no guarantee that Bakshi's original idea would have been any good either. But even if it was done through dumb luck, the film does offer some insights on the more chaotic permutations of the cartoon image, with which viewers sometimes forget in a world where mainstream values have largely effaced any hardcore adult sensibility.

Monday, May 23, 2016

RAR #16: GREAT WARRIOR

One of the oddest Real American villains is Great Warrior, a supernatural chief who killed himself and thereafter haunted Plastic Man in POLICE COMICS #16 (1943).



The story's curious animus toward Native Americans may be slightly mitigated by the fact that America was at war, and aboriginals were perhaps viewed by some as an "enemy within." I discussed the story in greater length here.

It's somewhat noteworthy that Plastic Man does not defeat Great Warrior's menace, for the villain easily possesses the hero and gets him in dutch with the cops. The hero's perpetual sidekick Woozy Winks is the one who saves the day, by getting Great Warrior's son to exorcise his old man-- even if it is one of the all-time "cheats" in the history of comics.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

RAR #15: RED EAGLE

In my previous post I noted that Red Wolf wondered if villain Devil Mask might be a white guy simply because the villain favored a six-gun.

There's no knowing how many, if any, real Native Americans were capable of using the white man's six-shooter, but for whatever reason, thousands upon thousands of westerns have repeatedly depicted tribal types wielding rifles, but rarely handguns.




"The Last Warrior," written and drawn by Larry Lieber for RAWHIDE KID #71 (1969), is possibly more interesting for this one angle-- given a vivid depiction on the cover-- than for its story as a whole. To be sure, "Warrior" makes a decent read, but that image-- of Marvel's foremost western hero (arguable, I know) being disarmed by a redskin beating him at his own game-- is alone worth the price of admission.

Without going into a lot of story-detail, in essence Rawhide comes to the defense of a reservation-tribe of Apaches being oppressed by intolerant white townspeople and by scheming dastards who want to incite a new Indian war. Rawhide manages to dispose of both threats without much trouble. However, the aggression of the villains convinces the "firebrand" Red Eagle-- who has trained himself in the white man's tool of the six-gun-- to start a one-man crusade against white civilization.

Lieber honestly seeks to elevate the ensuing conflict between the red-haired outlaw and the red man to something more than a simple cops-and-robbers tale, as the author has Red Eagle's chief tell Rawhide: "[Red Eagle] must be stopped... by a lone warrior, as brave as himself-- the Rawhide Kid." Later Rawhide himself glosses this sentiment, thinking that because Red Eagle is a warrior, he should not be stopped "by lesser men, who find courage in numbers." The story culminates in a shootout, and Red Eagle receives a warrior's death-- which might have been easier for readers to accept if he'd been seen to kill anyone during his one-man war. Perhaps because Larry Lieber didn't want to script an overly violent comic, Red Eagle doesn't do anything but rob people-- apparently with no intention of doing anything with the money. All that he says to one of his victims is that he"will take from you, as you have taken from the Apache." It almost sounds like the Native American practice of "counting coup," though any such resemblance is probably mere coincidence.

Friday, May 6, 2016

RAR #14: DEVIL MASK and URSA THE MAN-BEAR

In the very short career of the 19th-century Red Wolf, he accrued two Real American foes.



Devil Mask is the lesser of the two lesser lights. He's in the tradition of "Hound of Baskervilles" villains in that he wears phosphorescent materials to make himself look like a supernatural spirit of Indian provenance, sometimes called "Devil Mask." The hero initially thinks he's a white man posing as an Indian spirit, in part because the villain favors a six-gun, but Red Wolf finally figures out that he's a red man because of the distinctive way he mounts his horse.




Despite having a Roman name that technically means "she-bear," Ursa the Man-Bear at least supplies Red Wolf with a couple of lively fight-scenes. Ursa has a commonplace Tarzan-style upbringing-- that is, he's a fosterling raised by bears-- and as an adult he leads the bears like an ursine army, resulting in raids for which the white cavalry blames the Indian tribes. He appears to perish at the story's end and, to the best of my knowledge, never appeared again.

RAR #14: RED WOLF (II)



I don't know what moved Marvel's editors to remold the recently conceived 20th-century Red Wolf into a 19th-century avatar, before the 20th-century version even received his own feature. However, the result validated the decision.

At the time, the western was very nearly the only genre at which Marvel Comics excelled, as the 1970s slowly demonstrated that the house-style didn't eventuate in good sales for the romance, anthology-horror, and teen-humor genres. The westerns all went into reprints by the late 1970s, but even reprints suggested that the genre still had some life in it at the newsstands.

I wouldn't say that the career of Johnny Wakely, the 19th-century Red Wolf, rates as one of the great western sagas of comic books. Nevertheless, the seven stories comprising the character's career-- one in MARVEL SPOTLIGHT #1, and six in RED WOLF #1-6-- were better than average, particularly when one compares them to an utterly formulaic product like the STRAIGHT ARROW feature from ME comics. Gardner Fox, who had also written Straight Arrow as well as other Real American heroes (such as "Super-Chief), wrote the majority of the Wakeley tales, though Roy Thomas is credited on GCD with dialogue re-writes-- presumably to bring Fox's writing-style more in line with the house-style. Some, though not all, issues contain above-average art from Golden Age penciler Syd Shores, who passed in the same year that the RED WOLF comic came to an end.

Technically, "Red Wolf" was the hero's real name. Born into a Cheyenne tribe in the late 1800s, he was given the same name as a great culture-hero of the Cheyenne, and his parents prophesied that the boy would someday equal his legendary namesake. However, the tribe was wiped out by a cavalry attack. The boy was placed in the care of a kindly white couple, the Wakelys, who raised him with the name "Johnny." This experience engendered in Johnny an appreciation for "white ways"-- but as soon as he reached his twenties, Johnny lost his second family due to an attack by desperados. Grieved by the second loss, Johnny becomes a scout for the cavalry, still hoping to find some way to achieve some personal synthesis between his "two cultures." While scouting a war-party, Johnny is shot by hostiles and falls off a cliff. He ends up in the legendary tomb of the original Red Wolf. There he finds a wounded wolf, with whom he bonds as his ally Lobo, and encounters the perhaps-imaginary wolf-spirit Oywayodata, who charges him with the mission of seeking to unite white men and red men under the name "Red Wolf." As a result of this encounter, Johnny/Red Wolf seems to acquire enhanced skills and senses, though as with the first "Talltrees" version there's no indisputable proof that he has "super-powers," or that the wolf-spirit is a "real god."



In the context of the Old West, though, this relative naturalism was an asset. The stories may be somewhat on the formulaic side, but they feature strong action-sequences, better-than-average Marvel-style emotional conflicts, some decent research into Native American culture, and even a little romantic conflict. This RED WOLF is no classic of comics history, but it is, at very least, a "good read."