Or: “Secret Secret Wars”
If you were waiting for it, here it is. Fair warning, though: not only is this ground well-trodden, but it’s been well-trodden by people a lot smarter and better-educated than I am, and honestly I’m not sure I’m up to the task of covering it. It’s actually much too big a topic for me. Why it would take someone like Dave Fiore to grapple with it for real…
However. I will endeavour to do my best. So…
It begins, as these things often do, with an ending. Sometime in the late Sixties, by all accounts I’ve read, Stan Lee had the nerve to ask Jack Kirby this fan-fic question:
“What would happen if the Fantastic Four fought God?“
I recently viewed the Nineties re-issue of the 1967 Thor cartoon feature, prefaced by some remarks from Sneaky Stan, no doubt located someplace near the Grotto of the Playboy Mansion at that time…in which he said that it was his idea to wonder about what some “New Gods” would look like, translated into comics form…
And let me blow your mind for just a minute, Bloggers: because is it not possible, even considering Jack Kirby’s own reminiscences, that it was freakin’ Smilin’ Stan who put that idea into his head, or at least supplied the accidentally-missing puzzle-piece to what Kirby had been working up to all along?
Is it so impossible to believe that Jack thought “ridiculous, Stan…but wait HEY WAIT A MINUTE…!”
Anyway we have the Galactus Trilogy, probably the most reverberative Marvel Comics ever made. Space-Jehovah appears in the sky like the detonation of an ideational bomb, and pieces of conceptual debris fly off everywhere…susbsequently, they rain down on everything. I, too (declares the Silver Surfer), can unleash forces that can never be leashed again…
And so: FIRST PAGE SPLASH! In which we introduce our thesis, i.e. that it’s a degenerate fiction only, that can release the seeds of future imaginative fruit. By rotting away their membranous cage, you see? Or perhaps I should say: beyond the obvious potency of the disciplined narrative, focussed, rigourously discursive, and intentional, there’s a whole world of para-values whose only yardstick is the ordinal measurement, where though the compass spins in search of its attractor, the cardinal directions have fallen off of its dial. A world without degrees: a world comprised only of a million unlogged associations.
And language in general is like this, too. I’ve mentioned synaesthesia before — the most common form of which is the artful (I say artful because I feel it’s artful) confusion of numbers with colours — but part of the reason why I’ve decided synaesthesia is a lot more common than we generally believe it to be is that words are also subject to synaesthetic confusions — “artful” confusions — that may be the result of a multitude of untracked associations, or may not. Take, for example, the word “shark” — to (at least) native speakers of English, this word verges on onomatopoeia: maybe it’s the combination of the sibilant “sh-” and the hard “k”…or the near-homonym it makes with “sharp”…or maybe it’s even the “r” in shark, which so nearly evokes the utterance “hard ‘k'” all on its own…but shark sounds sharp, to us. Shark sounds like jagged teeth tearing at crunchy meat. And, is this all that surprising? In evolutionary terms, we commonly assume words to have come out of primate sound-cries (Sound-Cries Of The Living Dead Man!), sounds compelling alertness to environmental (or social) changes…kind of like sign language for the mouth. Some basic signals from this part of our animal heritage probably survive unaltered even in our more evolved suite of human expressions: we still point at objects we wish others to take note of, for example. We still yell to get attention. Okay, so we don’t try to tell anyone there’s a forest fire by doing a big dance that acts out what the fire does, or by making “fire sounds”, but even if our use of worded language now depends almost exclusively on associational (and inter-associational!) cues we pick up in our early childhood, it seems silly to argue that poetry (for example) operates independently of the Weak Onomatopoeic Principle I’m advocating here. “The silver reaches of the estuary“, I would tell my tut-ees, when I’d exhausted every other approach to enabling their comprehension of poetry. “Doesn’t that sound like something to you?”
With art, it’s pretty obvious: things that look like things, act on our perceptions in the same way as do the things they look like. Association is straightforward, in art.
In language, though, it’s a little more shifty. “Shifty,” now what does that sound like? Unlogged, untraced influences are everywhere in our linguistic associational matrix: in the neural network (for that’s precisely what it is!) of our speech-decoding ability. But, if that’s all there were, couldn’t anything mean anything? But then what of the silver reaches of the estuary?
Synaesthesia seems to me to be the same thing. There are associations to be made in the purely sensory range, too: a kind of almost-language, if you will, of shapes and colours and attachments of relationship.
Or, okay: it may be a matter of the origin-points again. People have favourite colours, for example. But why should we have favourite colours? It’s a question that evolutionary biology can’t yet answer. There is the ability to associate, perhaps ultimately arising out of the evolutionary necessity of being able to recognize faces, or to theorize about the inner states of other social animals…which is rooted in our common bodily construction. But then there is also the infinite webwork of preferences, even of aptitudes, which is not necessarily rooted the same way. Music is the best example of this: music is universal, but some perceptual translations of music are common, and some are rare. And you can’t put that down to the neural net of inter-association, at least you can’t do so with any confidence. At a certain point, the origin of our response to qualia becomes utterly mysterious: we cannot say that it is associational, but we cannot say it’s instead something called “cannot-say”, without really saying nothing at all into the bargain.
In short, there will always be something to us, which is left undiscovered.
Well, the complexities of our sensory/apperceptive suite were built up over a few billion years of blind incremental accident, so it’d be foolish to expect anyone not to be bored with any off-handed attempt to sum them up, I guess. Suffice it to say that all of us who actually use this suite (rather than attempt to tweeze apart the layers of its mechanism) should be familiar with the realization that there are conventional patterns of association, as well as unconventional ones, and that they’re all nonetheless covered by the big umbrella of human “pattern-making”. And even in Arcadia, you know…well, here we are. Cogito ergo sum. The pattern is us: man vs. world. Somewhere outside deconstruction and semiotics, outside philosophy and science and religion and history, there’s the fluctuation of the ocean, the emptiness of the desert, the gloom of the necropolis, the poignancy of the night sky. The taste of dirt; the sound of rain; the yellow eye of the Sun. The silver reaches of the estuary.
A kind of chaos, to which we supply a kind of order. By the magic trinity of sight, choice, and accident.
Jim Woodring says everybody sees ghosts, you know: flashes of green faces, at the periphery of vision.
I say the number “eight” is coloured indigo, calm and cool.
We all share the tearing jagged teeth of “shark”. And the knowledge that “Clair De Lune” is beautiful.
And then there’s the love of pretend stories that never happened. Which is beyond universal.
Hold on, I’m about to get somewhere.
In his excellent “The Cheese And The Worms”, Carlo Ginzburg recounts the history of an Italian miller jokingly called “Menocchio” by his friends and neighbours: a literate man with a passion for books, who nonetheless couldn’t help decoding the written word in the style of the oral tradition he was born into. Confronted with a hundred different texts saying a hundred different things on the same subject, to him it seemed supremely natural to sift them together, and find the “real” meaning that together they concealed, as the broken pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope together conceal the “real” image of the thing beheld. But then this also led him to novel conclusions absolutely unintended, and frankly unimagined, by the authors of the books he studied. So novel were his ideas, in fact, that he was tortured by the Roman Inquisition for them: they wanted to let him go, you see, but he just wouldn’t recant. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He thought he’d found The Answer. He insisted that (for example) the Holy Spirit entered the Host of Communion. Crazy talk, Menocchio. It’s the hot iron for you, I’m afraid. Poor deluded bastard.
Of course, centuries later Philip Jose Farmer would create “Doc Savage: His Life And Times”, Stan Lee would create the “Fantastic Four Fan Page”, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday would create “Planetary”, and Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill would create “League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier” (actually Alan created a bunch of stuff like that, but let’s just limit our examples, shall we? Otherwise we’ll be here all night).
Followers, all. But! In a grand tradition.
That is to say, in the tradition of fiction itself. Because Menocchio was by no means the first, nor was he the last, to be caught in this snare…all of our fictions begin as transgressions, it could be argued (and indeed that is exactly what I am arguing), as all our religions began the same way, and all of our psychological theories too, our art forms and our philosophies, our sciences and our histories. None of it is “true”, in the way that the image beyond the kaleidoscope is “true”: because we never get to see the image beyond the kaleidoscope. The image beyond the kaleidoscope has, in a way, not existed yet.
And so it’s become necessary to invent it.
So where the heck is this “truth” character, anyway? That guy still owes me fifty bucks…!
Anyway let’s return to comics now, that most degenerate of all literatures, and most fractional of all genres. Most marginal, if you see what I mean. Because the more marginal the fiction, the more freely transgressive it’s permitted to be. Just so long as, you know, it doesn’t actually go outside the body of gross cultural permissions…
Just so long as it stays trash, in other words.
Trash culture. That’s an interesting thought, an interesting designation, don’t you think? “All that is not important”: and my God, the scope of that! It’s amazing. Because “important”, as we know, means all that is part of the hierarchy, all that composes the structure of the golden ladder to Heaven…all that is canonical and regulated, all that would suffer a complete collapse if not understood as order and focus…”importance”, the very spine of culture. Where intentions and interpretations are judged, and with an exceedingly fine edge too.
Down here in the muck, meanwhile, anything goes. No one cares. We all can be Menocchios, down here. It’s freedom, baby, yeah! And no fine edges to be found anyplace: therefore the reader simply overwhelms the text. Let alone the writer. “Open” readings, talk about your “open” readings! It’s almost too open. There’s no Capital-S SOCIETY at all down here, just so long as the Good Guys do, in fact, win at the end of the day. That’s really all “what’s important” requires of us, that the good guys win — because they don’t expect us to know any more. Because another word for trash, naturally, is juvenilia — so while established forms like the novel are replete with characters who supply their own moral (and a grim one it usually is), the world of the juvie is liberated from the necessity of accomodation with fate — in the world of the juvie, transgressions are not paid for, but forgiven, even as in the social world the transgressions of juveniles are not to be paid for as strictly as the transgressions of adults. Cheap expiation of sin is everywhere, and it doesn’t matter what numerical majority chooses to engage with trash fiction or trash entertainment, here: this is about the rules, and the rules say that the preoccupation of juvie fiction need not be with the price of morality, but only with the identification of it. In other words, morality is supplied from without, not within: so do the good guys win? Then fine, trash culture; so long as that rule holds true, you need not bother Higher Society with the details of your disgusting habit. Expiate away.
Therefore, think about it: for the most part we escape analysis, but for our own analysis. Even Mark Kingwell only turns his high-powered philosophical armamentarium on us in order to comment on the analytical method he’s using while he does it! Only we, who care for the more-than-half-accidental meanings that shore up our lake of crapola enough to try to sense where their currents run, are authorities down here.
And, outside of the good guys winning…
No one’s watching.
Hence: freedom baby, yeah. What we lack in discrimination (note how many of our stories exalt simplistic “heart-following” — this is not a mature commentary on the human condition, nossir), we make up for in the virtues of strange community…polymorphous, democratic, nutso-inclusive, that’s us! Look over here: Kirk/Spock slashfic. And look over here! Harry Potter “shipping”. This is reading that goes beyond even the boundaries of the page. I remember once seeing an interview with Martin Amis in which he protested “…but the reader is an artist too“, and maybe it’s not quite what he meant — well, definitely it’s not what he meant — but we absolutely prove that, down here. Where we’re close to fiction’s transgressive roots. Where “fandom” is something people claim, even fight over the boundaries of…well, said boundaries not even having an existence independent of their fighting, of course, because that’s the imaginative exercise too…to self-identify through imagination (“simple” imagination, like “simple” heart-following), to develop camps and clades, to find a space in which to talk therapeutically, ritualize behaviours, fetishize attractors, develop affections and enthusiasms….
Where we can, perhaps, more clearly see the difference between the mysterious origin-matters of instinctual response, and the fallout of massive inter-associational attached meaning.
This goes deep, Bloggers; maybe all the way to the bottom. It may in fact be a matter of “Our Fan-Fic: Ourselves”. Because is not all trash fiction of a piece with the lowliest fan-fic it inspires?
One day Stan says to Jack: “hey, what if the FF fought GOD?”
Or to put it another way, who would win in a fight, Jesus or Superman.
These are debased questions, degenerate questions. Questions that don’t follow the rules, questions that challenge the ability of the imagination to transgress. God and Superman are not commensurable characters; they exist in completely different conceptual milieux. They can’t be rationalized together. They can’t be. It isn’t allowed!
But imagination finds a way, and so we get Galactus.
More exactly: we get an expression of imagination which seeks to reconcile incommensurable ideas, which is (I put it to you) another word for imagination’s mythological impulse or affinity. That stupidly, illegitimately creative thing! That maker of loopholes that don’t exist! That junk-bond trader of the psyche!
What it says doesn’t make any sense…but it insists it’s making new sense.
Tolkien does that too, by the way: except in his case he insists he’s making old sense, not new, though it’s obviously pretty postmodern either way. Look: Glorfindel beats the Nazgul rider because he’s all elfy. But then what does that mean, for heaven’s sake?
Well, Tolkien fans understand very well what it means, though the hierarchy would be angry with the lack of logic evident in that understanding of theirs. New loopholes. Old meanings. Or to put it in terms understandable up on the Ladder: mythological thinking. And it seems quite out of left field, but this peculiar transformation of wish to sense to explanation that Glorfindel’s “elfy-ness” represents…arbitrary…postmodern…magical…is nevertheless not unjustified, just because it’s illegitimate. Indeed justification is the whole point of it, the whole point of the mythological imagination’s exercise, the whole point of what that illegitimacy is being used for. Justification is the whole point, the whole meaning, of the meeting of the ford in the first place! Psychologists will tell you that a meeting at a ford is a meeting at a ford, is a meeting at a ford, and all meetings at all fords are all the same, and they’re so right…and yet it was Jung himself (I use the elfyness for my own purpose here: “Jung himself“) who pointed out that the archetypes don’t vibrate all by themselves…but it’s the way they’re taken up into the psychology of the individual (hello, Bully!) that mobilizes and activates them. Now, you can believe in Jung or not, it doesn’t matter for this: because you can’t find me a psychologist anywhere on Earth these days who’ll deny the value of interpreting a dream to understand what it’s “telling” you. It simply doesn’t matter if they’re Freudian, Jungian, or whatever: it doesn’t even matter if they believe a dream has anything naturally to “tell” after all. But a dream’s a dream, and whether it has intrinsic meaning or not, its symbols “vitalize” when they are made sense of by the dreamer. But Jung would’ve added something to that formula of vitalization, crazy semi-mystic postmodernism-anticipator that he was:
“Of course, by being understood, the dream gets vitalized too.”
Justification, conversation, refreshment…ahhh, refreshment. For therapy as for mythology, it’s always the main thing. Because we never will get to see the image beyond the kaleidoscope, will we? And so we must be satisfied with what refreshment we can make up for ourselves. And this works a little bit like what George Clooney’s character was saying in “Three Kings”: “first you do the thing you’re afraid of…then you get the courage after.”
“But that’s not fair!”
And justification works the same way, in these meetings by the ford: justification comes first, not after. The leap of faith comes first!
Just as it does in the grammar of shapes and colours, or in the formation of notionally-onomatopoeic words (which kind of aren’t, really…I mean, “molybdenum”?)…it comes first.
Because imagination doesn’t see, but it makes.
Except, that is, when it’s seeing: here, look, I already gave you the dictum that some perceptions are conventional, and some are not…now what’s the bigger mystery, between the two of them? Gaze on some weird, unforced narrative orderliness for me, if you will: Becky Cloonan goes for Joss Whedon with a big sword, and the fucker is FROZEN; Dick Hyacinth is a VAMPIRE and Barry Kitson is a PALADIN (wow!), and “Bully = Minotaur; easy one”…ah, but Piaget might not have agreed, you see…
Waid vs. Simonson!
Aragones as a D&D monk!
Walt Kelly as Group Scientist!
Eisner vs. Eisner! Tom Brevoort’s telescoping arms!
So let’s get serious: how much of that is seeing, and how much is making? Careful! If you answer either way, you lose your own Buddha-nature…
And here’s a true story for you: when I used to play a lot of solitaire, I used to bliss out and imagine that some face cards liked each other/hated each other more than other face cards…
Which I freely admit is kind of weird…
Or, is it? Because don’t you know that all the face cards are supposed to reference august personages of semi-mythical times past? Hector, Charlemagne…one takes another, red on red, black on black…sixes and fourteens…
But then again, it’s all fan-fic. Read your Bulfinch’s: Hector’s sword? Became Roland’s. And who did Roland become?
Jesus, it’s just like solitaire…
Could Superman beat up the Nazgul? Would Lancelot take Hector, or Hector Batman? Grendel vs. Gilgamesh, bets anyone? How about Tom Swift vs. Jonny Quest vs. Joe Hardy vs. Sock Jones? Bets? Bets?
Like the man said, once: who makes the world?
Or: which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Jung tells us (yes, Jung again) that when a symbol is doubled or repeated (Batman vs. The Phantom vs. Tarzan vs. John Carter vs. Doc Savage– bets?), it’s because the archetypal information is still struggling for clear expression…which in the context of this discussion here we might take to mean: yes, those two magical complementarities, justification and refreshment. And they’re always trying to get out. But onto what?
Who will lay it out for them?
I dunno, could Oprah beat Howard?
Should it be Harry and Hermione, or maybe it should be Hermione and Bashir instead? Yeeeaaaaahhhh…
Dracula vs. Captain America?
If a dog and a monkey had a fight, who do you think would win?
What If…The Beatles Had Become The Fantastic Four?
I know that the ease of such pattern-matching seems trivial to some. Not to me. Because up on the ladder, above the muck, none of these questions have answers. Heck, they don’t even qualify as questions, up there. But down here, answers proliferate, sometimes align, sometimes diverge…we actually have more answers than questions, I sometimes think. And it’s all very mysterious. It’s all very exciting. It’s all very fun. But do we even know what we’re doing?
I think we’re rotting out the skin of the fruit, so that the seeds can get free.
But that’s just me.
And of course, your mileage may vary.
Goodnight, Bloggers! I had some bad news today, and so this has been therapy. And so it’s maybe not been as nice and neat as I would’ve made it otherwise, but you’ll forgive me, yes? And I have not put in any links, but if someone’s tremendously interested I’ll strive to put them in to order. Anyway I must take off for a few days. See you soon.