Thursday, November 10, 2022

Episode V

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. 

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is subtitled "a metaphysical history of comics photorealism". 

The term "metaphysical" keeps cropping up. Alex Raymond is "the first human being to methodically and purposefully shatter the metaphysical realism barrier", apparently. 

In philosophy, metaphysics means questions about what is really, really, real -- as opposed to epistemology, which answers questions about how we know what we know, and ethics, which is about, well, ethics. Sim seems to be using the word to mean something like "underlying reality" -- what Douglas Adams called "the fundamental interconnectedness" of things. Dirk Gently, you will remember, saw the solution to each problem as being detectable in the pattern and web of the whole. 

Does one historical person share a name with another historical person? They may have a "metaphysical enactment relationship". Does a character in a comic strip resemble a real person? It can be said to be a "metaphysical comic art portrayal of them." 

The back cover blurb talks about "meta-textual resonances". A meta-text is a text which talks about itself; very often a book which knows that it is a book. One of the things which distinguishes human language from mere signalling is that you can use language to talk about language; where you can't -- say -- use road signs to talk about road signs. (I suppose a sign which said Important Sign In Half A Mile might be meta-sign. )

I do wonder if the two words -- metaphysics and metatext -- have become connected or confused in the writer's mind.

Raymond's death was so significant that it sent out "tendrils" forwards and backwards through time, leaving traces and connections that can be discovered by anyone who looks for them. Another historical road crash, or a comic strip depicting a road crash, can be said to have been caused by, or caused, the one which killed the creator of Flash Gordon. Sim plays with the idea of cause and effect: a particular comic is significant because Ward Green "will write it..he always wrote it..always had written it. It affects events in his past, which is...his present, and which is simultaneously...his future." (Alan Moore did a similar thing around Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen.) 

Further, characters in real life "incarnate" themselves in texts: sometimes because a real person has been depicted in a comic book; but sometimes because a comic book character happens to resemble a real person.

These connections can be very obscure indeed. The main character in a Joe Simon/ Jack Kirby romance comic called "I was a pick up" somewhat resembles a character called Pagan Lee who appears in Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby. This character somewhat resembles Margaret Mitchell. Sim sees this as highly significant. 

"The comic arts metaphysic of Ward Green's fictionalisation in Rip Kirby of the March Hare Tea Shop Margaret Mitchell as Pagan Lee (the leeward side of Mitchell's intrinsically pagan self) seems to cause the March Hare Tea Shop Margaret Mitchell to...sprout elsewhere in other comic art as well."

Ward Green was the head of King Features Syndicate which published Flash Gordon; he wrote the scripts for Rip Kirby. The March Hare Tea Shop was a speakeasy that Margaret Mitchell frequented.

Now, this kind of pattern formation can be creatively fruitful. It is pretty much the whole basis of Watchmen. Moore believes that magic and creative writing both draw connections between disparate things: connections which did not exist before the magus or poet made them, but which are thereafter real. 

I have referred before to Sim's theory that the secret history of Christianity is encoded in the history of nineteen sixties pop music. James (Paul McCartney) and John (Lennon) kick Peter (Best) out of the band; the apostle Peter vacillated between two rival Christs (like a Rolling Stone); once Jesus has died, what you are left with is Peter, Paul and Mary. There is a genuine wit and cleverness to that: we can enjoy watching Dave Sim extract rabbits from hats. (Who is the Jesus analogue in the Beatles? The Jewish man in charge of the whole group?? Well, didn't George Harrison sink a lot of money into a film about an imposter-Messiah entitled Life of...Brian???) And those of us who managed to get right through Promethea may have some knowledge-by-acquaintance of Moore's deeply held believe that everything is a symbol of everything else. But it is also a story, with a plot and characterisation and narrative development and all the stuff you expect there to be a in a story. It may not convert us to ritual magic and path-working, but it stands as a worthwhile, if pretty obscure, work of art. An artefact as well as a statement: a thing made as well as a thing said. (The Middle English word for Poet was "maker".) 

I have argued at too much length that I think that Cerebus the Aardvark, despite its obscurity, difficulty and increasingly toxic ideology, stands as an astonishing work of art. 

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond? Not so much.

The purpose of the Strange Death of Alex Raymond is to tell us about this thing called Comic Book Metaphysics. Sim truly thinks that if he tells us about all the connections he has made -- and he honestly thinks that these connections are real and undeniable and that once they have been pointed out no-one will deny them or put them down to coincidence -- we will understand how the artist died and believe that this is how the universe works. 

Tell, at massive length: don't show.

I don't know whether he thinks that every death is at the center of an equally complex metaphysical web, or if Alex Raymond is a unique world historical figure. Probably the latter. The whole universe revolving around a single artist of genius. You can see why Dave Sim would be attracted to that idea.

I am not sure if I should reveal Alex Raymond's significance. It is an odd thing to be writing spoiler warnings for what is essentially an extended essay: but my jaw did genuinely drop when we came to The Point. In the same way my jaw dropped when Dave said that Cerebus was going to finish on issue 200, rather than 300; in the same way it dropped when Cerebus turned inside out and we were in Dave's studio, and Cerebus was a comic within a comic.

Maybe if you are the sort of person who thinks you might read this sort of thing you should skip the rest of my meta-essay? (Disclaimers apply. Do not feed the troll.)

Perhaps as much as a third of the comic is spent talking about Margaret Mitchell, the author (Sim insists on saying authoress) of Gone With the Wind. She also died in a car accident, five years before Raymond, and lots of comics around the time of her death seem to depict car crashes, near car crashes, characters called Margaret, characters with the initials MM and characters who resemble Margaret Mitchell or have affinities with her life. On page 244-247 Sim departs from his normal hand written lettering to show us a series of huge, headline like frontispieces, about a woman from eighteenth century Ireland who was prosecuted for witchcraft. (She is sometimes called The Last Witch in Ireland. She wasn't executed, but she was put in the stocks every day for a year while Irish people threw hard-boiled eggs at her.) Her name, of course, was Margaret Mitchell.

"Had Margaret Mitchell just been a contemporary iteration of an infernal presence in our world that dates back to the eighteenth century? Is that what had caused the weird outbreak of Margaret Mitchell analogues in comic books cover dated August-September 1949? Or was the motivating force behind these otherwise inexplicable manifestations Ward Green's obsessive and magnified focus on Margaret Mitchell?"

Why is the story of the woman who wrote Gone With The Wind of relevance to the story of the man who drew Flash Gordon? Because (apparently) Ward Green, had tried to come to an arrangement to adapt Gone With the Wind as a comic book. (Mitchell did, in fact, write the first few episodes of a comic book soap opera which was illustrated by Stan Drake: the only fiction she wrote after her famous novel.) Gone With the Wind was a massively successful book that had been turned into a massively successful movie; so the pairing of Mitchell with the massively successful artist Alex Raymond would have been a very big deal.

However, Ward Green was (it says here) an unreconstructed racist, and possibly an occult dabbler as well, so a Ward adaptation of Gone With the Wind would probably have been a thorough going Confederate apologia, rather than merely an exercise in Southern Nostalgia. If such a famous artist had illustrated such a work -- with a readership amounting to practically every adult in America....

SPOILER SPOLIER SPOILIER would have resulted in a Confederate Revival and a new civil war in the 20th century. 



I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

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