Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hellboy in Mexico and Christological Echoes: The Platypus Reads Part CLI

The Sacred Heart of Jesus always catches my eye.  There's a story in this.  Back during the Great Depression, my great-grandfather owned a restaurant.  One day, a man came in and told my great-grandfather that he was hungry but couldn't afford a meal.  My great-grandfather, a devout Catholic, sat him down and gave him one for free.  The man thanked him and left.  The next day he came back and told my great-grandfather that he had a job interview but needed a watch so he could be on time.  Again, my great-grandfather gave him his pocket watch.  Now the man did come back, and with the watch, but when he returned it to its owner there was a slight change: the man had painted inside in minute detail the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  It was his "thank you" for a man who was unafraid to live the gospel.

Now, I told you that story to tell you a less important one.  Namely, what I see in Mike Mignola's Hellboy in Mexico, part of the collection Hellboy: The Bride of Hell and OthersHellboy in Mexico tells the story of how Hellboy joined forces with a band of luchadores to fight evil back in the 50s.  The luchadores themselves felt the call to become occult detectives when the Virgin Mary appeared to them and asked them to forsake wrestling in order to fight monsters.  In keeping with their Catholic devotion, one of the brothers, Esteban, has The Sacred Heart of Jesus tattooed across his chest.  This becomes important as we shall see.  The monster bashing lasts for a month with no diminution in the attacks until the monsters wise up and grab Esteban.  Hellboy discovers him in the ruins of a Mayan temple and finds that the monsters have turned Esteban into the bat-demon Camazotz, complete with snakey-heart tattoo.  Hellboy and Camazotz fight and in the end Hellboy is forced to spit Camazotz straight through the heart.  This done, the monsters vanish and Camazotz turns back into Esteban, bleeding through The Sacred Heart of Jesus.  There's no anastasis, but the Christological echo should be clear: only by taking on the evil and sacrificing himself can Esteban save Mexico from the monsters; merely fighting them by human efforts will not work.  The symbol of his sacrifice is none other than the Sacred Heart.  Also of interest is the notion that evil caries in itself the seeds of its own destruction.  The monsters in their pride seek not only to defeat good but to humiliate it.  In trying to make Esteban one of them, they open the pathway to their own destruction just as in some theories of the atonement, the devil destroys himself in seeking to kill Christ.  The notion that evil is ultimately self-defeating shows up elsewhere in the collection and is worth keeping in mind as you read.

That said, one final remark.  The purpose of this examination is not to determine Mr. Mignola's religious leanings or claim that Hellboy is somehow Christian.  What it is seeking to do is draw out is how Mignola makes use of Christian symbolism and Christian theology to tell a good story.  Why Christian symbols and Christian theology make for good stories I leave up to you.

The Return of the Summer of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CL

Last year's "summer of Shannara" went well and I thought I would continue it this summer by going through the Heritage of Shannara series.  I started book I, The Scions of Shannara, the day school let out and I've reached chapter 10.  As with last year, my goal is to blog my way through all four books of the series giving my reactions as I go.  Those who wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.

The Heritage Series begins three-hundred years after the death of Allanon and the disappearance of Paranor, the druid castle, from the Four Lands.  The first book of the series, The Scions of Shannara, opens well with familiar character Cogline meeting at night with the shade of Allanon to discuss the future of the Four Lands.  Cogline, against his will, is sent by the shade to find the three surviving members of the house of Shannara that still carry the old magic: Par, Wren, and Walker.  This first book of the series is really Par's, and we spend much of the rest of it seeing things from his pov (or more accurately, that of an omniscient camera man standing over his shoulder).  Thus far, Par and his brother have been ejected from the city of Varfleet for using magic (and met chief bad-guy Rimmer Dall and future good-guy as-yet-unnamed in the process), met Cogline and received a summons to the Hadeshorn, then hooked up with Menion Leah (that pernicious habit), traveled to Culhaven to look for Walker, found Walker at the old Boh homestead and found out that he wants nothing to do with them.  Along the way, they have had mysterious encounters with creatures known as Shadowen.  These creatures threaten to destroy the Four Lands, though their exact nature is as yet uncertain.  Oh, and the Federation from the last two books has swollen into a huge and fascistic empire of Lucasian proportions.

My immediate impression of the first chapter was that Brooks' style and tone have improved remarkably since The Wishsong of Shannara.  I have also been impressed in these first ten chapters with Brooks' use of material from the original series to give this new tale a sense of depth and "rootedness."  Unlike the first series, I feel as though the characters are inhabiting a real and meaningful world as opposed to a collection of cliched locations pulled from various adventure novels.  Brooks didn't set out to write a "deep," Tolkien-esque world, but he has begun to write himself into one and it's better for his art.

That said, The Scions of Shannara still has a strong pulp feel with the introduction of "forced" confrontations and elements that serve merely to keep the story running as opposed to emerging organically from the logic of the work (The two encounters with the Shadowen, Gnawl, and Spider Gnomes in particular).  There's nothing wrong with pulp, but Brooks doesn't allow the necessary "wink-at-the-camera" that you see in Burroughs and that gets the reader through the forced and goofy elements.  To put it another way: the first books were "Hardy Boys meets Tolkien," and this book seems to be "The Hardy Boys get in a fist-fight with Tolkien."  Tolkien has a ton of pulp elements in his The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (take a look at all the stuff he lifts from H. R. Haggard's She), so a mediation between pulp and high fantasy isn't impossible, it just takes a deft literary hand to pull it off.  Backing up a little, I think this disjoint stems from the fact that Brooks excels at creating monsters and describing fights, but struggles with character development and conversations.  Thus, whenever the plot begins to call for these, he makes sure to interrupt with random-creature-from-the-abyss-number-fifty-seven.  It hides (or cuts short) his short-comings and keeps the plot moving.

Now back to praising Brooks.  One thing Brooks excels at, aside from creating monsters and describing fights, is short, swift, character sketches.  So far, all the "red shirts" we saw in The Elfstones of Shannara are gone.  Each character, no matter how briefly seen, has a personality; even the offstage innkeeper that Par and Col work for at the beginning of the novel.  This lends the book a greater believability and adds to the overall interest.

That's all for now.  I'll post again after the next chunk.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Summer Reading 2012

Tomorrow is the last day of classes and that means that it's time for the return of summer reading.  I'm planning on a follow-up to last year's "Summer of Shannara" by blogging my way through the Heritage of Shannara series (maybe they'll be better?).  There's also bound to be plenty of all things Greek with The Cambridge Companion to Homer, Memories of Odysseus, Spartan Notes, The Mycenaeans, Blackwell's Companion to Ancient Epic, etc. on the list.  The Greeks won't own the whole show as The Rape of Nanking and The Memory Palace of Mateo Ricci are also there to globalize a bit.  Tolkien certainly won't be left out as I happen to have gotten a nice critical edition of The Monsters and the Critics from some generous family friends as well as a copy of The Company They Keep from my wife.  Lewis is also on the menu with Sayer's biography as well as Gresham's Lenten lands and Lewis own Experiment in Criticism.  Back to the world of pulp, I also have a stack of Hellboy inbound so that I can make up for lost time.  As wild cards, there's always more Fritz Leiber and maybe some Tanith Lee (or a biography of Tennyson and some Camus).  I've just finished Doug TenNapel's Gear, but I don't know if that gets to count as Summer Reading.  Maybe it's just Finals Week Reading.

Anyhow, that's the prospectus.  As we all know, with Summer Reading things never turn out as you planned, but that's the fun of it.  How about you: any vacation time coming?  What's on your list?  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Justin Gerard Paints the Silmarillion

This gallery is a must for Tolkien fans.  I could do with more galleries like this, not to mention more operas, stage plays, concerts, frescoes...  Note, in particular, how Gerard has incorporated Tolkien's love of Arthur Rackham and art nouveau into his designs.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Platypi Against Wizardry: The Platypus Reads Part CXLIX

No, the Platypus isn't getting Levitical.  What I do want to talk about, however, is Fritz Leiber's fourth Fafhrd and Grey Mouser volume, Swords Against Wizardry.

Having returned from our world, Fafhrd and Mouser seek adventure far from the decadence of native Lankhmar.  In the first story, this means a journey to Fafhrd's northern home and the attempt to scale an unscalable peak in search of jewels.  Along the way they encounter girls (that pernicious habit) and fend off rival adventurers.  Returning to the base of the mountain loaded with jewels, our heroes turn to that city of misadventure, Lankhmar to sell their booty.  This leads into the second story which features our "heroes" trying to sell their loot without losing it to rival thieves.  Along the way they encounter more girls (noting a theme yet?) and end by losing their loot to more cunning and depraved adversaries.  The loss of the loot sends them into the third tale, co-written with Leiber's friend, and the underground world of Quarmall.  Quarmall is a, mostly, underground realm ruled over by rival wizards.  Each adventurer, unbeknown to the other, signs up to be the sworder of one of the two brothers that are fighting for dominance of the dark domain.  After various adventures (and yet more girls!) they escape by the skin of their necks with only a handful of treasure each.

At this point in their career, Fafhrd and Mouser are more like the petty villains of Tennyson's Gareth and Lynette or Geraint and Enid than anything else.  They are anti-heroes, men who want to be "the good guys" but have lost their way and gone awry.  They're the sort of fellows that Gareth or Geraint would give a sound thwacking, send off to be civilized by Guinevere and Arthur, and end their lives in battle fighting for the king.  Two world wars killed off the knights of the round table, light and true alike, and there's no one left to redeem Fafhrd and Mouser.  If Leiber intends for them to become traditional heroes, they'll do it on their own.  If not, then there's not much interest in following them after this.  After the jewels cease to glisten and the girls have lost their charms, there has to be something more.    

The Platypus Gets the Word Out

Hi all, there's a new Doug TenNapel web comic that's just gone up, Nnewts.  I loved Ratfist, and I'm excited to see where this new adventure will take us.  If you like TenNapel's style, you should also check out his friend Ethan Nicole as well over at Bearmaggedon.  These guys both offer something fresh and different from the normal super-hero schtick and I've loved following their work over the years.  If you like comics, but are tired of the "same-old, same-old" give these two a shot.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Le Guin's Orsinian Tales: The Platypus Reads Part CXLVIII

Going through a library book sale has unearthed a few gems.  One of those was a Le Guin book I'd never heard of before: Orsinian Tales.  It's neither sci-fi nor fantasy, and that's what immediately drew my interest.  The stories of the Orsinian Tales take place in a fictional Eastern European country and follow the general history of that region.  In this imagined setting, Le Guin follows various lives of Orsinia's people through the great events of European history.  The tales in themselves are well written but only loosely connected: perfect for leisurely or sporadic reading.  If you like Le Guin, check it out.

T.S. Platypus

April is the cruelest month, but May brings graduation.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

California's Gods: Strange Platypus(es)

We've noticed lately a strange Californian dialectical twist: there, freeways take the definite article.  In other parts of the country one speaks of I 91 or 45 North.  In California, there's The 5, The 405, The 10.  Each of these freeways has its own quirks, a personality of sorts.  They aren't just stretches of pavement but presences, creatures that necessitate the definite article by their very individuality and uniqueness.  They are the angry gods to be worked, placated, feared, for without them life in California as we know it would cease.  Perhaps that's fitting for a land whose cities are named for saints and angels.  Mary may preside over the new pueblo of our lady of the angels, but the freeways slither like gigantic serpents through the waste places, malevolent spirits not yet trampled under foot.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Sublime and Theological Localism: Strange Platypus(es)

There have been quite a number of bands over the last few decades that have devoted significant time and effort to exploring what it means to be Californian.  The Red Hot Chili Peppers deserve special mention.  There are even more bands who hale from the Golden State that can be credited with creating a unique California "sound."  That sound speaks of wide horizons, golden hills, twisting highways and canyon roads, hazy blue skies, sea breezes, and jasmine scented twilight.  There's one piece in particular that's been going through my mind lately.  Let me explain.

I arrived in SoCal in 1998, just in time for the ska, swing, and reggae craze that struck the Golden State and spread east.  The song "Santeria" by Sublime had been out for at least two years before I heard it, but it struck me then and still strikes me now as quintessentially Californian.  It's a little insight into the soul of SoCal.  Every time I hear it, I can't help but think of the sun and the sprawl.

The first thing that strikes me about "Santeria" is its style.  There's something about all those upstrokes that keeps the song in that permanent state of "it's all good" that California lives in.  Though the subject matter of "Santeria" is serious and extreme, a man who fantasizes about killing the man who stole his girl, you wouldn't know it from the sound of the music.  That odd disjoint haunts Southern California through and through.  No matter what happens, with all that sun and fun it's impossible not to say that "it's all good."

The second bit of quintessential SoCal is the unselfconscious multiculturalism of the work.  The lyrics are in English, the musical style is Jamaican, the terms used to describe the treacherous lovers are Mexican, and Santeria is a form of Cuban folk religion.  In other words, it's a piece that's as effortlessly diverse as L.A.

The final point I wanted to raise builds off of the first two.  There is an inarticulate longing that permeates "Santeria" that is Californian to the core (cf. Steinbeck).  The singer keeps breaking into half-articulate digressions.  Somehow he just can't keep enough steady anger to focus on getting back at "Sancho" and resist existential digression.  What it is that pulls him away, the singer himself confesses that he "can't hardly define."  It might be finding a new girl, it might be Love with a capital "L," but he lacks the vocabulary or the framework to express it.  This is the voice of a culture that has cast off every tradition and every restraint in the journey west to very edge of the world.  And there it sits on the shores of the sea under the bright sun, and the promised utopia's not there.  All the bridges are burnt, and there's nothing to go back to anyway, so why not just accept that this is as good as it gets.  Maybe we have deeper longings, but there's nowhere else to look and all the tools that might help us look got lost along the way.  In the end it's better to just soak up the sun and hope that in the end "I'll make it, yea, but my soul will have to wait."

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Damnation of Theron Ware: The Platypus Reads Part CXLVII

My string of discovering lost classics continues with the 1896 novel The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic.  It's a realistic novel set in upstate New York and focuses on corruption of a foolish and naive Methodist minister who comes into contact with a group of worldly socialites.  On a deeper level, the story serves as a metaphor for America as an emergent world power at the turn of the twentieth century.

I'm a fan of most things that involve New England or the immediate vicinity.  I also have an interest in American regionalism in general.  The world Harold Frederic evokes strikes me as an accurate representation of the "bones" upon which the contemporary North East is built.  The roll of Irish immigrants, Catholicism and their interaction with older Anglo families and Protestantism struck me in particular as well as the prominence of class distinctions.  My ancestors were Irish Catholics and I recognised much in Frederic's report of the plight of the Irish in his day that reminded me of my own family traditions.  These details of place give the work a solid and creditable backdrop against which the story can take place.

As said earlier, that story is The Damnation of Theron Ware, Methodist clergyman.  Ware's transition from beloved Evangelical minister to play-acting Liberal is an intriguing tale in its own right, but it also serves to highlight the state of American religion in the late nineteenth century.  Science and the higher criticism loom large, though they seem to persuade more by appealing to the spirit of the age than to logic; a damning criticism of the religion of the era in itself.  By the end of the book, however, Ware becomes more than just a commentary on American religion, he assumes the role of America itself: naive, ambitious, and over-confident, and emerging into a world dominated by older and more sophisticated powers that it cannot hope to understand but desperately wants to join.

As a final note, the subtitle of the work is Illumination. I have some ideas as to what this might mean, but I want to hold off on stating them.  I imagine few people have read this book.  It's worth reading and I would hate to give too much away.  Hopefully what's here is enough to peek your interest.  If you've already read it, however, let me know.  I'd love to see what you think!