Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part III: Phantom Lagoon, a Doc Savage Adventure

All right, we have already written about Doc Savage in these pages.  Dr. Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr., the Man of Bronze, made his debut in pulp magazines in March, 1933 (around the same time that King Kong made his first appearance).  Doc Savage Magazine was published by Street & Smith, and Doc was created by publisher Henry W. Ralston and editor John L. Nanovic, but most of the 181 novels were written by wordsmith Lester Dent (1904-1959).

Doc Savage was a surgeon, explorer, scientist, researcher, criminologist and all-around physical marvel.  He did two hours of intense exercise every day, giving him a fabulous physique.  His body had been tanned a deep bronze during his world travels, and newspapers have dubbed him The Man of Bronze.  His adventures spanned the globe: often starting in his laboratory offices on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, and usually ending up anywhere from the Gobi Desert to the Sargasso Sea.  He was accompanied by five fellow-adventurers, the Fabulous Five – the finest minds ever assembled in one group.  Sometimes, his beautiful cousin Pat Savage would tag along, creating no-end of problems for Doc.

The end of the pulp magazine industry might have meant the end of Doc (his magazine stopped in 1949), but the Nostalgia Boom of the 1960s saw his adventures reprinted in paperback editions, and he found a whole new legion of fans.  The entire Doc corpus was reprinted, reawakening interest and bringing the character to comic books and a series of new novels, written by novelist Will Murray. 

I recently picked up one of Murray’s new Doc Savage adventures, Phantom Lagoon, and it’s a pip.  Set in 1939, and based on notes by Dent himself, Phantom Lagoon concerns Hornetta Hale, aviatrix and world explorer who comes to Doc’s 86th floor HQ looking to hire him, or at least rent his submarine.  Doc and two of his aides, Monk and Ham, send her away as a glory-hound.

Next thing you know, Doc’s HQ is demolished, his hidden hanger of aircraft, boats and submersibles is burned to the ground, and Doc and the boys are on another harrowing adventure – this time, concerning a possible race of underwater men, a sword-cane carrying Nazi, FDR and a volcanic crater.  If you can resist a mix like that, you’re a better man than I, Gunga-Din.

It was actually Phantom Lagoon that started me thinking on the consolations of junk art, and the columns for this week.  Initially, I was going to quote passages from the book here, but, honestly, there is no prose anywhere in the novel worth quoting.  Yes – it’s filled with snappy banter and delicious period phrases, but seekers of beautiful prose must go elsewhere.

Nor did I learn anything about Doc (or Monk or Ham), New York in the 1930s, the then-state of world exploration, or even the Nazi menace while reading Phantom Lagoon.  And, odds are, in just a few scant weeks, the vast majority of the novel will have been sponged from the wet-and-wooly lump of gray matter I call my brain.

But why, then, is Phantom Lagoon art, even if art of a low type?  Because … reading the book rejuvenated my sense of fun and playfulness at a moment that I needed that boost.  Spending a couple of hours with Doc gave me the feeling that the world was still a wide, rich and romantic place, and that there were adventures to be had by the adventurous.  That life, if played correctly, is still a game and that it is possible to be young at heart forever.

It is a book told with zest and esprit, a sense of fun and light-heartedness.  For a few hours, at least, I was on a volcanic Caribbean isle with Doc, fighting Nazis and plunging the mystery of undersea men.  I was, in short … happy.

Look – there is nothing of high mark in this at all.  The characterization is flat or by rote, the writing merely serviceable, the adventure predictable.  But it did the job – and more so.  And that is my point, entirely.  At a moment when I was a little tired and perhaps a little blue, Doc (once again!) came to the rescue. 

It may not be art, but it may just be a benediction.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part II: The Incredible Hulk Television Series

"Mr. McGee, don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry." – Dr. David Banner.

We continue this glimpse at the deep and satisfying consolations of junk art with a look at one of Your Correspondent’s favorite television shows as a boy, The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982).  And yes, I was once a child.

If the criteria for good junk art is that it provides some of the comforts and consolations found in high art, then, believe it or not, The Incredible Hulk fills the bill.  I had not seen it since its initial run, and seldom thought of it since.  However, when I spied a boxed set of the entire series for next-to-no money, the nostalgic impulse was too great and I succumbed.

Let me insert here my feelings, in general, on films and television shows adapted from comic books:  Your Correspondent could happily go to his grave without seeing another one.  Superhero films seem to support the entire film industry right now, crowding out films for adults, films of taste and subtlety and films that are, at least, different.  An orgy of CGI-generated destruction is not an orgy I wish to attend, thank you very much.

However, The Incredible Hulk television show dates back to a time that did not have the crutch of special effects to lean upon, and depended instead on story and character.  I opened the boxed set with a bit of trepidation: very often I have returned to boyhood favorites only to find that the memory was better than the actuality.

Oddly enough, with The Hulk, both were true.  The series is both cheesier than I remembered, and, in ways, more profound than I could have hoped.

For those of you unfamiliar with Hulk-dom, let’s recap the opening narration of the series:  Dr. David Banner: physician; scientist. Searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have. Then an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry. And now when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs. The creature is driven by rage and pursued by an investigative reporter.  The creature is wanted for a murder he didn't commit. David Banner is believed to be dead, and he must let the world think that he is dead, until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him.

So, what we have is Les Misérables told as an episodic science fiction television show.  There is no reason in the world for this thing to work, but it does against all expectations.

Let’s look for a moment at the junk component.  The Hulk was not only a creation of its time, but a mirror of the obsessions of the 1970s.  There were episodes set in discos, amongst truckers and CB radio enthusiasts, in kung-fu schools and there were even digressions in ghetto-chick; tropes included bio feedback, ESP and mind-reading, pop psychology and past-life regression.  But even moving away from the preoccupations of a fairly tacky decade, the writing on The Hulk was too often doughy and simplistic even by network television standards, the problems too rote and elementary, and the resolutions too pat and easy.

And yet.  And yet…

There is something real and … emotionally moving going on in The Incredible Hulk.  Let’s start with the protagonist, Dr. David Banner (played with real sympathy and sweetness by Bill Bixby).  Banner experiments with gamma radiation after losing his lover in a car accident.  His researches lead him to the conclusion that some people in moments of extreme stress or anger find remarkable physical strength … and that those energies start at a cellular level.  Racked by guilt – why did he not have these resources of strength when he needed it? – he tried to duplicate the cellular variations on himself through exposure to gamma radiation.  The tests backfire, and now, in moments of stress, he mutates into a gigantic, green monster (Lou Ferrigno). 

In short, Banner is not a hero in the conventional sense, but someone haunted by the physical manifestations of his own shortcomings; he is tormented because he looked deep inside of himself and found himself wanting.

Every episode, Banner comes into the worlds of new people in new cities and new states, always seeking that elusive cure for his condition.  Because of his inherent decency and humanity, he is often with the underclass or downtrodden, using his considerable medical and scientific gifts to improve the lives of those around him.  And, with clockwork regularity, he leaves these new-found friends once his secret is out and his opportunity for a cure evaporates.  But the real tragedy of Banner is that he is a man running away from himself; the one thing no man can ever successfully do.

McGee (played with conviction by Jack Colvin), his nemesis, is not cardboard cutout, either.  Working for a cheap, tabloid newspaper (think the National Enquirer), McGee sees the Hulk as an opportunity out of the minor leagues and into the bigtime.  But, as the series progresses, the Hulk becomes both an obsession and a beacon.  An obsession because McGee will not let-go, even when in jeopardy of ruining his already shaky career, and a beacon because the Hulk comes to represent to McGee all that is marvelous and unexplained in the world.

Every episode ends with poor Banner once more hitchhiking to the strains of the “Lonely Man” theme by Joseph Harnell, a piano lament in a minor key.  But next week will be exactly the same, no matter how many people Banner meets, or how close he comes to finding a cure.  He will never unburden himself of his own weaknesses, his own fears, or of the monster he carries inside of himself.  It is a perfect existential tragedy.

The Incredible Hulk is junk but it is glorious junk because of the weight it bears – sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully.  It is not a comic book show, but a tragedy told in comic book tropes.  It is impossible to take in the whole series and not feel a sense of sadness, of sympathy or of empathy for the benighted Banner.

Yes, I will lose the respect of many of my readers, but The Incredible Hulk is not junk … and it may even be art.   Of a type.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Consolations of Junk Art, Part I: Star Trek

“Was it not Gautier who used to write about la consolation des arts? I remember picking up a little vellum-covered book in your studio one day and chancing on that delightful phrase. Well, I am not like that young man you told me of when we were down at Marlow together, the young man who used to say that yellow satin could console one for all the miseries of life. I love beautiful things that one can touch and handle. Old brocades, green bronzes, lacquer-work, carved ivories, exquisite surroundings, luxury, pomp—there is much to be got from all these.” --- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

"To the man who loves art for its own sake," remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, "it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.”  -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Cooper Beeches (1892)

Two very different concepts on the curative power of art, written only one year apart.  However, recent events have led me to believe that it may be Sir Arthur and not Mr. Wilde who was closer to the mark.

Your Correspondent has recently been thinking of the pleasures of pop art versus those found in the Fine Arts, the proper subject of this blog.  Dealing with multiple responsibilities, I relaxed within the warm confines of some delightful junk art.  It has gotten me thinking that often, when tired, that it was not towards the highest, but, rather, towards the lowest that I went for succor and comfort.  Why, I wonder, would that be?

The reasons are multiple and, as is usual when considering art of any type, complex.  It would be too easy by half to say that junk art provides only expected sensations, and, consequently, comfort, pleasure and even a kind of solace.  Nor do I think that good junk art was created solely for the groundlings, who are unworthy (or unwilling) to interact with the higher branches of the fine arts.  No … I would argue that good junk art stimulates essential pleasure centers of the brain, pleasure centers that were meant to be stimulated, and that need that stimulus in order to remain healthy.

So, we have to agree when Sherlock Holmes says that art’s keenest pleasures are often to be derived in its least important and lowliest manifestations.  (It is important to remember here, too, that the Sherlock Holmes stories are junk art of the very highest pedigree.)

I have been enjoying a great deal of junk art over the past couple of weeks, and wanted to share both the delights and pitfalls to be found in them.  And how better than to start with that global phenomena, Star Trek.

For those readers who have not been living in a cave for nearly the last 50 years or so, Star Trek started as a science fiction thriller on network television in the 1960s.  It fairly limped along for three seasons until the network pulled the plug in search of something that would generate better ratings.

Normally, the result would’ve been that the vast majority of American viewers simply opened another beer and moved onto to some other program.  But Star Trek would not die.  It was saved once during its initial run by a letter campaign that ensured the final two seasons, and once it was off for good, it was kept alive in syndication, comic books, novels, fan fiction and on the convention circuit.

A decade after the last television episode saw the first, big-budget film adaptation, and the franchise has not stopped for breath since.  There have been 12 movie adaptations, and five later television series.  It does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

As with any huge entertainment franchise, there is much that is good and much that is bad in Star Trek.  Your correspondent has a soft spot for the original series, starring William Shatner and the late Leonard Nimoy, and likes Star Trek: The Next Generation a great deal.  But … it’s all still junk.

Though there will be calls for my head on a pike, the ugly truth is that when Star Trek is good, it’s pedigree junk, and when it’s bad, it’s nearly unwatchable.

What’s the good?  Well, Star Trek will often confront questions on the nature of the human condition … but only in the most surface and reassuring way.  Vindications of our simple humanity and calls for universal tolerance and progress are all good things.  And when these homilies are delivered by an actor with real gravitas (such as Patrick Stewart, who played the Shakespeare-quoting Captain Picard), they can sound wonderfully profound.  However, their profundity is of the Reader’s Digest sampler kind; propositions no one is really going take issue with, and never to be examined in any depth.

This often makes terrific television and compelling movies, but it is not art of a high order.  In short, Star Trek is an imitation classic – it is Shakespeare for those too tired, or uninterested, in the real thing.  But, unlike Shakespeare, any real profundity is brought to it by the viewer, and is not really inherent in the text.  But its deficiencies are not the point … Star Trek, in terms of high-minded themes translated into compelling drama still manages to get the job done.

What’s the bad?  Well … like many offerings that generate obsessive fan-bases, Star Trek is often its own worst enemy.  Too often plot, character development or even the underlying philosophy of the concept are driven by demands of an entrenched fan-base.  That kind of outward direction has killed greater modes of artistic expression, and for a franchise it can be the kiss of death.  (For an example of this, look at the disaster that is Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country.  Designed as the farewell film of the original cast, it is little more than a litany of shtick, none of which seems to make sense in context of the story.)

Another problem is that, with an enterprise like Star Trek (sorry), it is impossible not to come to the well too many times.  Though it is often reinvented with tweaks that give the appearance of freshness, the franchise is filled with tired blood and should be put out of its misery.

Wait … I hear you saying, isn’t the whole point of this the consolation of the arts?  Indeed it is.  Your correspondent admits that when he is tired, there are few things more comforting that an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Just listening to Stewart mouth the platitudes and homilies that Star Trek provides in great profusion can be a tremendous solace.  It is also a delight to know that someone, somewhere, believes that the race will continue to exist hundreds of years from now, and will even move out into the stars.  Finally, while Star Trek would never argue in favor of the perfectibility of the human race, it continues to underscore what is worthy, heroic and noble in our natures.

And that’s not junk.