Friday, April 16, 2021

Face It, Tiger...

 A Sherlockian Solution To A Watsonian Problem 

for Nick

In the earliest issues of Spider-Man, Peter Parker is romantically interested in his classmate Liz Allen, who is nominally going steady with nasty sports Jock Flash Thompson. He then develops a more serious relationship with J. Jonah Jameson's P.A Betty Brant. But that relationship is doomed because he can't tell her he is Spider-Man. When he starts college, after a fairly rocky start he ends up in love with the boringly perfect Gwen Stacy. This is heading for wedding bells right up to the point when she is murdered by the Green Goblin, ostensibly without Stan Lee's permission. So Parker ends up in a long-term relationship with Mary Jane Watson. They eventually get married in 1987.

Mary Jane was originally introduced into the story as a running joke. Peter is dating Betty; Betty thinks Peter is still dating Liz; but Peter Parker's doting Aunt May wants to set him up with Mary Jane, the niece of one of her neighbours. Peter chauvinistically assumes that anyone May approves of will be plain and boring; but somehow lacks the moral courage to tell his Aunt that he is going steady with Betty and is too much of a gentleman to two-time her. 

In issue 25, matters come to a Wodehosian climax. Betty and Liz turn up at Aunt May's house at the same time, and, just when they are about to scratch each other's eyes out, find that Mary Jane is already there, waiting for Peter. She is, of course, incredibly glamorous. "He's been hiding her from us! Our shy, bashful Peter!" (Her face is concealed from the reader by means of a convenient pot-plant.) 

Artist/plotter Steve Ditko quits on issues 38, and Stan Lee spends three issues culling all the unresolved plot threads. Betty Brant comes home, not having eloped after all; Peter and love rival Ned shake hands and agree to behave like gentleman; bastard Harry Osborn turns out to be quite nice after all; and we finally find out who the Green Goblin is. In issue 41, Peter Parker finally agrees to long postponed date, and one month later a gorgeous red-headed bombshell bounds in with the words "Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot."
(Note: it therefore follows that the question to the answer to life, the universe and everything is : "In which issue of Spider-Man did Peter Parker first meet Mary Jane?)

As often happens in early Spider-Man, M.J grows in significance over a number of issues. When Stan gave J.J.J a glamorous P.A, probably didn't know that she was going to become Peter's first love interest. Indeed it is doubtful if, when he introduced nasty tabloid mogol J.J.J in issue 1 he knew that he was going to become Peter's major antagonist. In issue 15, May asks Peter to go meet "a lovely girl" who is the niece of "our neighbour, Mrs Watson". In issue 16 the lovely girl is named as "Mary Jane" and Mrs Watson is "such a good friend of mine." In issue 18, the neighbour helps to take care of Aunt May when she is sick. 

In issue 27, May looks forward to visiting Mrs Watson once a week; in 29 they go to the movies together; in 34 May drops round to her house for tea and cookies; and in 40 she considers becoming Mrs Watson's lodger. Mrs Watson is first named as Anna in issue 18 and as Anna May in issue 41 she's "a nieghbour" in issue 15 and "my next door neighbour" in issue 25. Mary Jane is referenced in issue 15, 16, 17 and 25, and not again until 38. 

Now, although Peter lives with his Aunt, you would not normally expect elderly ladies to have their nieces living with them. "My niece Mary Jane" would probably refer to "my sister's daughter who lives in another part of town." But Stan Lee appears to understand that Mary and Anna have a similar relationship to that of Peter and May. In issue 18 Mrs Watson has to leave early because her niece is out of town. 
In issue 28 she looks forward to going home and telling Mary Jane about Peter's graduation. 

In issue 39, when May is worried about Peter, Anna remarks that even M.J is late home occasionally. 

Mrs Watson is said to have a husband in issue 18: but she seems to live alone by issue 40 -- it would make sense for a single widow to ask a close friend to become her lodger, but it would be odd for a married woman to do so. 

We do have to face one major inconsistency. The married neighbour who helps May when she is sick is actually referred to as Anna Watkins; and the Anna Watson who attends Peter's graduation refers to Mary Jane as her daughter. A strictly literal approach to the text would therefore require us to create two additional characters.

1: Mrs Watson-1, a widowed lady who lives next door to Aunt May and has a daughter named Mary Jane.

2: Mrs Watson-2, sister of Aunt May's neighbour, who has a daughter, also called Mary Jane. It would be unusual but by no means impossible, for two cousins to have the same name. 

3: Mrs Watkins, a different neighbour of Aunt May, who is married, with an unnamed niece. 

However, for the sake of our sanity, I am going to assume that Mrs Watkins, and the reference to Mrs Watson's daughter, are simply lettering errors. If we don't allow Artie Simek to occasionally make a mistake, we would have to come up with an explanation of why Peter Parker spends an afternoon living under the name of Palmer! 

So: the problem we are faced with is this -- how can Peter be having a blind date with his next door neighbour? How can he not know what she looks like if she is literally the girl next door.

And of course, the answer is staring us in the face: it covers all the facts and solves another continuity problem. 

In Spider-Man 1, May Parker is living in a rented home -- a landlord is going to turn her out if Peter doesn't come up with the rent. 

However, in Spider-Man 13, they are worried about paying the mortgage; and in issue 39 May briefly considers selling her home and becoming Mrs Watson's lodger.

So, clearly, at some point in the first year of Spider-Man's existence, Peter and Aunt May moved to a new home. J. Jonah Jameson does not pay Peter Parker what his pictures are truly worth, but Peter can still command quite high fees, up to $250 a picture. His first cheque (for photos of the Vulture) is enough to pay a year's rent and have some left over. It is therefore extremely feasible that Parker would be able to put down a deposit on a property, enabling Aunt May to spend the rent money on repayments. (The mortgage must be in Peter's name, because no-one would give a mortgage to an elderly pensioner!) 

In issue 10, Aunt May's neighbours are the Abbots: Mrs Watson is first mentioned in issue 15: so the house move must occur between issue 11 and 14. The years' rent paid up front in issue 2 would have run out around issue 13. Peter Parker does not change schools, and he is already said to be living in Forest Hills in issues 7 and 8. Presumably, then, they move a small distance, perhaps to a smaller property, and one that is very near Peter's school. 

It follows that when Aunt May starts to set Peter Parker up with Mary Jane, they have only been neighbours for two months. It very much fits Aunt May's character that she would quickly strike up a close relationship; with her next door neighbour and be treating her in a matter of weeks as an old friend. It is equally in character for Peter Parker to have been living in a new location for over a year without talking to anyone else on the street. 

It isn't clear exactly when MJ moves out of her Aunt's house: she seems to be living some distance away by issue 25; travels to May's house by car in 38, and is specifically said to have her own apartment by issue 40. 

Clearly, then, Mary Jane, as originally conceived, was literally, but not figuratively, the girl next door. Peter Parker has recently moved to a new home: Aunt May is badgering him to start dating local girls but Peter is remaining a loner. 

This also goes someway to explaining why Peter, despite his extravagant payments from J.J.J is always short of money: he has, on Aunt May's behalf, taken on a mortgage which is rather beyond his means. (Although he is still able to drop a couple of grand on a motorbike in issue 41.)

Saturday, April 10, 2021

 Obviously, what the words needs most is playlist of songs mentioned in the last article. 

Warning: Contains Language. 

Thursday, April 08, 2021

The Last Talons of Weng-Chiang Essay

“I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” 

Tony Campolo 

Behind much discussion…there hover two propositions that I think much less admissible than the new morality 

1: That if a book is literature it cannot corrupt. But there is no evidence for this, and some against it… 

2: That if a book is a great work of art it does not matter if it corrupts or not, because art matters more than behaviour. In other words art matters more than life; comment on life, the mirroring of life, matters more than life itself. This sounds very like nonsense 

C.S Lewis 

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Andrew Over-Thinks A Joke: Part 94

Someone drew my attention to this cartoon. 

I hadn't seen it before, although I am familiar with Tom Gauld's cartoons in the Guardian. 

It troubles me. 

It troubles me in the way Jonathan Pie troubles me. 

At first glane, I thought it was saying "The kinds of people who read serious literature are inclined to look down on the kinds of people who read science fiction: and this is silly, because the people who read science fiction are having a good time." Since I am one of the people who read science fiction this made me smile. 

But then I stopped smiling because I am also one of the people who reads serious literature, so I thought that perhaps it was me who was being made fun of. 

Overthinking cartoons is probably a bad idea. It is probably the sort of stuffy thing that the kinds of people who read serious books would do. Probably I am only doing it because I am jealous of your red nose and your floppy shoes. 

But the artist must have thought about the cartoon before drawing it. At least I suppose he did.

A.A Milne said that he thought of putting a little comment before each of his children's poems explaining who was speaking the words: the author, Christopher Robin, or hoo. 

I think that is my question about this cartoon. Who is saying it: the cartoonist, Christopher Robin, or hoo? 

Are we being told what the science fiction reader really thinks about the serious literature readers? Or are we being shown what the serious fiction readers think that science fiction readers think about them? Or are we being told what the cartoonist thinks that the science fiction reader thinks that the serious fiction readers think that he is thinking? 

And who are we supposed to agree with? Do we read the science fiction reader's think bubble and say "Ha-ha, he's so right, they are only jealous of him." 

Or do we read it and think "Ha-ha, he's so wrong, imagining that they are jealous of him". 

The artist draws simple, iconic figures -- hardly more than stick men. The Proper Literature readers each have a single feature: one man is bald and wears glasses, the other man has a pipe and the woman has her hair in a bun. They are unattractive, fusty, old fashioned, spinsterish, studious -- in a word, uncool. This is the stereotype that people who don't like books have always applied to people who do. 

The science fiction character is also a cartoon, but he's more realistic: a combination of 1970s NASA spacesuits and 1930s Buck Rogers comics with a heavy overlay of steampunk imagery. The spacesuit seems to have been made out of tin cans. 

The idea of the jet-pack comes off a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, and is sufficiently old that it may have provided some of the inspiration for Superman ten years later. Jetpacks were rendered pretty obsolete by the rise of superheroes who could fly under their own steam. They weren't a feature of most space-opera after the so-called golden age: they aren't part of the Lensmen books, Star Trek, Star Wars, Blakes 7 or Battlestar Galactica. They'd look pretty retro in the Expanse or Firefly. 

So: does the artist think that readers of serious literature really are old fashioned and stuffy; and that science fiction readers really are still reading century old pulps? Or is he saying that readers of serious literature foolishly and wrongly think that science fiction is still just Buck Rogers? Or that the science fiction fan thinks that literature fans think that he only reads space opera comics? Or that the literature fans think that he thinks that they think that sci-fi is only Buck Rogers. Or that he thinks that they think that he thinks.... 

Again: are we supposed to accept the premise that there is a category called "proper literature" and a category called "science fiction" and that never the twain shall meet? And if so, are we supposed to think that this is a bad thing, and they should both have a look at each other's books: or is the science fiction fan right in thinking that proper literature is joyless? 

Obviously cartoons have to deal in symbols. A cartoon in which someone in ordinary clothes said to someone else in ordinary clothes "Oh, yes, I also enjoy Elana Ferrante, why don't you have a look at Gene Wolfe one of these days" wouldn't be particularly funny. 

I notice from some of Gauld's other cartoons that this two-pronged approach is a fairly consistent feature of his humour. Darned if I do and darned if I don't. One cartoon depicts a simple labyrinth puzzle, with the instruction "guide the metropolitan intellectual back to his ivory tower without encountering his countrymen". "Liberal metropolitan elite" is a right wing trope: Eton educated Boris Johnson and commodities trader Nigel Farage were both presented by the far-right press as Men of the People, in contrast to Liberal Metropolitan Elitists like Jeremy Corbyn. It isn't clear from the cartoon whether Gauld is saying "Intellectuals really do live lives of isolated luxury, without contact with ordinary people: this is bad"; or "Silly, small minded Tories falsely imagine that intellectuals are remote from ordinary life: it is bad that they imagine this." Another cartoon has a fairy godmother providing Cinderella with a bank account and a fulfilling career rather than a coach and glass slippers, and saying that she only has to get married if she wants to. Again, it isn't clear whether he is saying "traditional fairy tales are sexist, and this is bad" or "feminists spoil fairy tales, and this is bad." Certainly "the left want to impose politically correct fairy tales on us" is a trope of the far-right; but in the context of the cartoon the artist might well be saying "the idea that anyone would write a fairy tale in this way is absurd; PC gone mad is a false fear." 

Laughter often occurs when the same text can be read in two different ways ("there were two fish in a tank"). So it might be that this ambiguity is precisely what the cartoonist is aiming at. He draws both for the New Scientist and for the Guardian literary section, so he himself may have a camp in the "Buck Rogers" and "joyless literature" camps. 

The accusation that the science fiction fan is making -- or that the the literature fans think that he is making or that he thinks they think he is making -- is that readers of literary fiction are insincere. They would rather be reading sci-fi; their disapproval of the genre is a mask for their jealousy. They are literary puritans, haunted by the fact that someone somewhere might be having more fun than they are. 

It is very tempting to say that Mary Whitehouse was an anti-smut campaigner because she longed to read dirty books or that Richard Dawkins hates Muslims because he secretly knows that there is a God, but it's highly unlikely to be true. I am not even sure that "if you were confident in your own sexuality you would not be so homophobic" is either fair or helpful, although it is very funny. But this kind of thinking underlies too much of our current political discourse. To call someone a virtue signaller, woke, PC or an SJW is ultimately to call them a hypocrite. They don't really believe in reducing global warming or promoting human rights: they are justing pretending to do so because they want to look good, feel superior, toe the party line, and ultimately destroy western civilisation. We have talked before about the stance known as "Bulverism", where the knee jerk reaction to any opposing position is to say "You only think that because..." 

You don't really think that serious literature is better than genre literature; you are just pretending that you think so in order to conceal the fact that you'd rather be reading Buck Rogers than Kazuo Ishiguro. 

Then again, there are still rather a lot of people who think that they have heard quite enough from experts. I am mildly concerned with how full my in-box seems to be with memes about English professors who are filling kids minds with some silly idea about how Edgar Allen Poe's Raven might have some element of symbolism to it (when the kids can all see that it is, you know, just a bird.) A perfectly sensible little parable about how the perfect can be the enemy of the good seemed to morph into a complaint about theory and theoreticians. It is very possible that in the 1830s the people of Denmark needed to be told that emperors were sometimes naked. But right now, I think people ought to consider the possibility that if ninety nine knowledgable folk think that the emperor is wearing his imperial robes and you are convinced he's starkers, then possibly you are the one who should have gone to specsavers.

I think that people who read serious literature read serious literature because they like serious literature because serious literature can tell them things about the world and human beings and life. I think that people who read science fiction read science fiction because they are interested in ideas and speculation and science and the future and philosophy and technology. I think that the some of the people who read serious literature believe, correctly, that some science fiction is poorly written and badly characterised and that some of the people who read science fiction believe, correctly, that some serious literature is dull and difficult. I think that very large numbers of readers of serious literature also read genre fiction and very large number of readers of genre fiction also read serious literature. Probably its a bad idea to only read one kind of thing. I don't think anyone is jealous of anyone. 

Spacesuits and jetpacks -- the whole ethos of Buck Rogers and Hugo Gernsback -- is not so much retro as an historical curiosity, with the same relevance to contemporary science fiction that Lonnie Donnegan does to Dizee Rascal. But we are only a few years on from the awards named after Gernsback being hijacked by reactionary science fiction fans who said -- very explicitly -- that retro, ray-gun and jet pack science fiction was the only real kind; that the intrusion of characterisation and and psychology and new-fangled good-writing into science fiction was the thin end of a communist wedge. They very much drew a line between science fiction and "proper literature". They said that science fiction was a purely masculine form; that the infiltration of "literary" ideas into science fiction was part of a feminist plot and that the girls should damn well get out of their treehouse. 

I don't for one moment think that the cartoonist believes this. And the fact that a trope can we weaponised by neo-nazis does not invalidate the original point. But the false dichotomy between Buck Rogers and stuck-up-librarians-with-hair-buns troubles me. 

Some reviewers and and university departments are quite snobby towards science fiction readers, and I wish they weren't.