Allegory vis-á-vis Comic Books

Allegory vis-á-vis Comic Books – An allegory is any story in which some dimension of the plot and its actors is not literal but symbolic, creating for us associations beyond the obvious.

Perhaps surfaces of plot and character reveal hidden depths, or—in a more postmodern mode—surfaces are pregnant with new surfaces, new implications. I like to think that fable-parable-anecdotes are almost always fairly complete in their allegory-ness. The simplicity of such traditional stories is obviously and purposely deceptive: Demi-myths beg for psychoanalytic readings, deconstruction, new-critical plumbings of the abysses of the human story (Campbell’s friend Heinrich Zimmer is exceptional at this), and so on. Demi-myths, like myths, are not factual or realistic, but allegorical, symbolic, metaphorical, and figurative. They gesture at hidden complexes of meaning (some binary, good/bad—branched like trees; some open, heading out in strange new shapes, like potatoes, rhizomes—see Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus for more on the shapes of thoughts and thought-systems).

What demi-myths don’t do is elegantly and powerfully fulfill the four functions of myth outlined by Campbell; nor do they interweave to create, as I further require, culture-defining mosaics of significations, plots, modes, and attitudes. Think of how powerful “biblical” or “like the Arabian Nights” act as descriptors of whole cultures: Cultural texts may be composed in part of lesser myths or folk stories which do not individually fulfill mythic functions, but the overall system of stories must do so. In other words, not every story about a knight need be particularly psychologically powerful, but Le Morte d’Arthur is; Eschenbach’s Parzifal is; etc.

If this distinction between fable–parable–anecdote (Polycrates of the lucky ring, Batman, Shrek) and myth (Superman, Shiva and Sati, the life of Buddha) feels vague, it is perhaps because I put a lot of weight into the logic and power (generated by story-logic) of the myth in relation to its functions, and those functions are debatable.  For me, Batman on the whole offers us no world-view; the world is simply evil; its inhabitants should or at least can (sometimes) be saved, because saving lives is the “right thing to do;” but we are unable to extrapolate from the principal character’s own action and reflection on the world some greater meaning. The trail of cultural significations drops off.  (Notable exceptions include The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year 100.)

And yet each issue of Batman, as a short moralizing fable-parable in its own right, does offer us a special gift, since it is also an anecdote about an invented man: “Batman” and stories about him are invented by and for Bruce Wayne, himself an invention. There is no special originality in this per se; we do not know that Alexander the Great was a “real” man in any way except that people wrote of a certain man named “Alexander” for thousands of years after some proto-personage’s death. We cannot know Alexander, only the early historian’s accounts of him. So Bruce Wayne–Batman is not the first or only self-contained continuum of fable-parable-anecdote-person relating back to “real” person who is also fiction. But the character Batman’s anecdote-parable-fable (reversing the order of evolution in order to highlight Wayne’s centrality as pseudo-”biographical” subject—or vice versa: Bruce Wayne is the man Batman would be, were Batman a rich dandy; the stories interpenetrate) is retold—re-told, re-written, re-imagined—every month.

Modern comic books offer either great interrelated stories, myths—whether in a few issues—Cassanova, Umbrella Academy, Furi-Kuri, The Maxx—or via an epic series like X-Men, Wildcats, or Hellblazer—or simply arbitrary-feeling collections of fable–parable–anecdotes revolving around invented people—Batman, spin-off groups like X-Force, Justice League (too mythic to be mythic; too associative to have meaning; the hollow form of a comic book, without the content of one; the simulacrum of the comic; the Disneyland-cast of the DC Universe), or even Fable, a collection of random fables (Blue Boy’s adventures) and anecdotes (Jack’s) that never seem to correlate, gather momentum, or address one (or more) of the mythic functions.

My choices above are subjective; others would read Batman mythically, finding psychological insight that—as a pacifist and inhabitant of the “real” New York—I simply cannot. Others would say Furi-Kuri is overtly Freudian, too silly to be mythic. Others love Fable, perhaps confusing its humor and adroit dialogue for overall affecting oomph. The point is, it’s pointless; choose what examples you like and discard or abuse those you do not. I merely point out that, within the ever-growing corpus of modern traditional stories (hour-long TV dramas, comic books, and action movies come first to mind), we can pick apart any given story for its fabulistic, parabolic, anecdotal, or even mythic properties. I find a given comic book to belong more to myth or to simpler demi-myth; you are free to disagree.

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