Scylla, Meet Charybdis

Scylla, Meet Charybdis

You’ll meet them too, in their respective comicon board alter egos (Gene Phillips & Charles Reece), if you click on the above link (actually, the thread only gets really relevant to what I’m about to say around here):


Before reading anything new, a word about “dead myths.”

It may be roughly true that a myth created in a given socio-religious matrix is effectively “dead” once the worship of the myth has died out, even putting aside small-scale revival attempts, like modern “Odinism” and the like. However, any myth that “dies” in religious terms can always be “resurrected” in literature (including its popular forms), and some myths of this kind never die at all. For instance, it’s a safe bet that the worship of Gilgamesh (probably a god in origin, later scaled down to mortality) will never make a comeback. But as a literary myth Gilgamesh remains alive. No matter how far modern readings of Gilgamesh may be off compared to the belief-systems of ancient Sumerians, Gilgamesh remains a presence with which modern artists can conjure, ranging from Robert Silverberg to the writing-staff of LOST.

The simple drawing of comparisons between two figures, such as Gilgamesh and Superman, is not what myth-criticism is about. It may be a point of departure, but it’s not, as Charles has implied, simply a game to establish the “importance” of modern pop-figures. I don’t deny that some writers may have been content just to draw parallels, but for me, drawing comparisons is the beginning step, before one gets into talking about what the points of comparison meant in their original context, and how relevant they are today.

This is, of course, a fairly intuitive process, and many critics would like something that seems more “scientific,” as per Charles’ emphasis upon “analyzing just why such a creation has had a lasting impact in contemporary times.” Thus a fantasy has no broad cultural appeal in its own right, but only evolves in response to the zeitgeist of the times. I have no problem with Jones’ argument that the so-called “forces of modernity” did play a role in shaping the creation of Superman and similar figures, but I do have a problem with Crippen and Reece’s interpretations of that as being the only factor. When I read Crippen’s tortured prose about how crushing and insignificant modern man feels in the light of modern technocracy, I’d like to borrow a time machine and send Crippen back to live with the serfs of Dark-Age Europe, to get a real taste of insignificance.

I’m not sure if I’ve captured what Charles meant when he spoke of “dead myths,” but I consider the more over-intellectualized schools of criticism (like the Frankfurt School) to be far more mordant than any other criticism. To quote Wordsworth, they “murder to dissect,” and thus prove themselves to be exemplars of the very modernity that they claim to be critiquing.

(Gene Phillips, of course)

Now, with the exception of Gene’s final stab at the Frankfurt School (and presumably at Adorno in particular–who is an interesting thinker in some ways, but whom I agree is worthless as a critic of 20th century popular culture), I disagree with everything in this post, especially the assertion, common among fanboy-scholars, that the Campbellian/Jungian interpretation of superheroes is anything more than a game of  “look how Significant my childhood heroes–Gene is big on “heroism”–are”.

Meanwhile, Gene’s main interlocutor (and fellow monstrous threat to my own scholarly project) in this marathon thread –my old Mulholland Dr. sparring partner Charles Reece–has been saying things like this:


I don’t know who you’re talking to, Gene, surely we’re the only ones left. Anyway, just for clarity, I think you get a good deal of meaning out of your use of myths, just not clarity. As your quoting of Gulick demonstrates, you don’t consider whether “myth-criticism” is really just criticism. You attempt to gain some discursive capital by associating superheroes with the old mass art of mythology. Rather than being an instance of people creating within the culture industry, the superhero genre becomes the product of modern-day myth-makers. While I believe legitimate art can come out of the culture industry, it does no one any good to gloss over the low probability of such an endeavor. Its almost accidental nature is due to the most definitely not accidental systems of control in place on the shaping of mass desire, the limited view of the reader-model and the way that view is accepted by the real reader. Sure, the superhero genre’s artists create, but always within the constraints placed upon them by the reader-model, a model that’s determined in large part by business men trying to figure out the most efficient way to gain a buck with the least amount of effort (defined by what these guys think about the genre as entertainment and how to get the culture to most readily accept the genre as a form of entertainment). It’s a dialectic of blood and piss, to be sure, but with the latter always cheaper to come by. Mass distribution and its demands of efficiency are such an integral part of the genre’s development and what it is now, that looking at it as if it were an old-fashioned form of mass art like folk tales or mythology is to look at the surface only. It also does a disservice to the artists, assuming, as you would have to, that these more-often-than-not blandly written, crudely drawn stories were the apex of their own subjective desires, rather than the best that they could do given the reality of modern commerce and their need to survive.

Again–I think Mr. Reece is correct in dismissing “myth criticism” as a playground tactic. However, Charles comes off as an almost completely unreconstructed Adornian (i.e. far too concerned with the “inherent”–explicitly aesthetic–qualities–and quality!–of the works under discussion… betraying the typically Modernist fear that “bad art” contributes to the infantilization of the public) in this paragraph–and, obviously, that doesn’t suit me either…

I made a serious effort to keep tabs on this discussion, because it’s a pretty good snapshot of the current state of superhero criticism, both within the academy and outside of it. Everything Gene Phillips writes reads like some of kind of crazy Wizard column dashed off by the ghost of an Oxford Don, circa 1900.  And Charles–when he writes on comics, at any rate–sounds like a (much!) smarter/more philosophically grounded version of TCJ types like Robert Fiore… Wizard and TCJ–these have been my twin negative reference points since the blog began–for the simple reason that neither tendency can accomodate a reading of these texts (since 1961 at Marvel–I’m not interested in the Golden Age until Roy Thomas starts re-writing it…) as narrative fields which have generated extremely important (in my view) conversations (about American power and what Sacvan Bercovitch would call the “American Self”) that could not otherwise have taken place. Phillips’ reader is too caught up in the “mythic power” of the stories to do any real thinking, while Charles falls back on a modernist caricature of the typical mass culture consumer as a dupe or, at best, a tired worker looking for an “escape”. Both construe the reader as, essentially, passive. Well, call me naive, but I still think of reading (especially in a subcultural context) as an ACTIVITY (evidenced by the amount of time that these “dupes” spend writing letters, “fanfic”, and message board posts!) Values do not inhere in texts–they are imputed to them, by conscious ( often, of course, from my point of view–and undoubtedly from yours too, no matter where you happen to stand–spectacularly wrong/harmful, politically speaking) agents! 

more soon–I hope!

Good Night Friends!



  1. I’ve read enough Eco to admit I’m attracted to some superhero stories and that I cry during Betty Davis movies. But I’ve also read enough Eco to know that saying the text offers nothing that’s not supplied by the reader will only lead to nonsense, which no one really believes in practice.

    Yours in the coming apocalypse,


  2. Charles!

    the text is–unquestionably–the text… there are definite words (or, at least, alphabetical signs), pictures, sounds, colours, etc. in there–but the reader/viewer/auditor is the active ingredient which gives meaning (many. MANY meanings!) to the enterprise

    you know you agree!


  3. Well I guess it depends where one places Eco – he is on my shelf with Adorno, Wertham, Barthes, and Robert Jewett of closed – minded culture critics.

  4. Dave,

    Stated that way, of course I agree. I think it’s best to look at the “text” as the point at which many interpretive vectors originate (apologies to mathematicians if I’m fucking up their terminology). Even more vectors arise from points along the other vectors coming from the text and are, unfortunately, mistaken as coming from the text, or are mistakenly seen as being just as important to understanding the text as those coming from the text. You dig?


  5. In other words, one shouldn’t conflate the dialectic one experiences with the text and the dialectic with other readings of the text. The first is textual analysis, the latter is a doctorate thesis. That’s a joke, I say.


  6. author of comment #3:

    identify yourself!


    In other words, one shouldn’t conflate the dialectic one experiences with the text and the dialectic with other readings of the text. The first is textual analysis, the latter is a doctorate thesis. That’s a joke, I say.

    the joke is on you then amigo (don’t worry–it’s on me too, and all of us!)–because the naive dialectic between reader and text that you privilege does not exist!

    your friends, your schooling/training/acculturation, all past and future readers (and fellow critics–every reader is also a critic), and the entire history of human art and expression all get in the way of the perfectly unmediated aesthetic experience that you crave…

    it might be nice (or would it? the precondition for such an encounter would have to be autism!)–but it ain’t gonna happen…

    if I ever get my computer working properly–look for much more of this kind of talk my friend…

    by the way–I was thinking of reading a little Eco some time soon (I’ve only ever read excerpts!)… what do you recommend?


  7. From a comics perspective “Apocalypse Postponed” (“Apocalittici e integrati”) is probably the first Eco book you have to get. It has a close analysis of the first installment of “Steve Canyon” and reflections about “Peanuts”, among other thoughts about the relationship between “high and low” culture. (Off the top of my head I remember an essay about Eugene Sue.)

    And of course it would be interesting to know what Dave thinks about Eco’s “Limits of Interpretation” (“I limiti dell’imterpretazione”) 🙂

    I also liked “The Search for the Perfect Language”.

    Best regards


    Link you might like:

    John Roberson is enthusiastic about All-Star Superman

  8. FrF suggested what I would’ve, except I might’ve thrown in THE ROLE OF THE READER as a entertaining precis to LIMITS.


  9. i’ll try to grab that Eco soon f & c!

    (right now I’m immersed in books about film noir–some excellent–James Naremore–and some absolutely useless–Edward Dimendberg)



  10. I apologize in advance for the incoherence of this comment. I agree that superhero comics don’t perform anything like the sociological funcition of mythology. I would consider htem to be part of the same genus but not the same species. However, I disagree that mythology enforces a passive state>primary rather than secondary thought processes, though not totally without the latter.

    Another inherent quality of mythology is that it attempts to explain the nature of reality through poetic rather than rational means. Most comics aren’t like this–except to the extent that all art is like this–but there are some that are. Notably the 70’s tradition of cosmic stories which Joe Casey is currently emulating in his Gødland. (Yes, I actually spell it like that. Call me a purist.)

    This is a fascinating blog, keep up the good work!

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