Ecstasy as the Deepest Level of Aesthetic Purity: The 7 Levels of Aesthetic Subordination

Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination

The discussion of value of a particular narrative too often misidentifies rhetoric or realism as the sole factor placing a text at a high (or the highest) level of quality; realism, in particular, has this false association with narrative purity, and rhetoric in narrative has the mistaken association of intellectual engagement as a necessary component of artistic value. This is a narrow perspective born from the notion that rationality has a greater value than emotional/visceral reaction. A more significant problem with this perspective is that it displaces value from the text or the work of art itself. The text has no intrinsic value, only its capacity to represent something else: so-called reality, a philosophical concept, a social condition, a sociological perspective, etc.

This is the aesthetic problem of subordination which art in the twentieth century strove to and should have eliminated. William Carlos Williams and the Abstract Expressionists should have, finally and completely, highlighted the falsity in the notion that subordination is superior to aesthetic purity.

Alas, critics seem resistant to accepting what Williams should have taught the world, slow to accept that thousands of years of traditional Western concepts of artistic value have been upside down this whole time (something that Eastern concepts of artistic value have acknowledged for just as long). This is partly because there are so few systematic ways to analyze a text given the elimination of subordination. Understandably. How do you rationally analyze something that is at its core irrational? When writers say (as so many writers do) that they have no rational purpose or intention in writing a narrative other than to explore a character’s tapestry of emotions, how then do critics take that irrational but perfectly valid claim and honor it without forcing rational analysis in places it doesn’t necessarily belong?

This is why I keep attempting to make something systematic, hence the Seven Levels of Narrative Subordination.

A more effective way to approach a work of art which has greater potential to give the irrational core its due weight is to look at the various levels on the spectrum between aesthetic purity and subordination. Considering this as a spectrum better highlights the value at both ends (since critical analysis has been stuck at one of the spectrum for too long).  By “aesthetic purity,” I just mean acknowledging the text based on its own value without subordinating the value to something outside of it. The most aesthetically pure is the least subordinated; the most subordinated is the most rational/cerebral but also furthest removed from its aesthetic core, that which gives it stimulant (visceral/emotional) value.

A spectrum, however, is not the most accurate way to consider these levels since each element in the scale builds on the next, so a work of art must start with that pure, irrational core as a condition of being a work of art. Thus, one could argue the higher levels have greater value in their relative complexity. What I have identified as the “Rhetorical” level, the highest level of subordination, most likely contains the other six levels as well, thus allowing the possibility of argument for the superiority of this type of text. However, as this level is farthest removed from the aesthetic core, it is least likely to be enjoyable, beautiful, viscerally stimulating, etc. Also, this complexity is not a necessary condition of the Rhetorical level, and containing each of the previous six levels is likewise not a necessary condition. For example, most children’s narratives are Rhetorical without necessarily being complex and without necessarily containing all seven levels within them.

Also, to clarify, I focus on levels  narrative subordination particularly because the first two levels (“Ecstatic” and “Paratactic”) work well with any type of art, but the other five apply best to narrative. For example, considering the rule systems relevant to each level is a way to understand its level of subordination, a consideration that is less helpful for non-narrative art. As a more specific example, the “Mythological” level functions based on its own internal rule system, a concept that is very useful in understanding narratives but not as useful in understanding visual art. Rule systems in narratives are an important aesthetic consideration since violation of a perceived rule system may seem like a flaw. To say this is an intrinsic or universal flaw is false, but it is important for a writer to recognize that the reader is likely to perceive this as a flaw. For example, a story on the Mythological level may include imaginary creatures who must adhere to an internal rule system without necessarily adhering to the rules of the so-called real world. A violation of this internal rule system may seem like a flaw no matter how beautiful the text may be at its core. Likewise, what I identify as a Rhetorical story must adhere consistently to the premises of the argument, and failure to do so may seem like a flaw even if the story itself is beautiful and adheres to internal rules irrelevant to the argument.

Here are the seven levels:

1)Ecstatic: The direct, visceral, irrational experience that eliminates the barrier between self and other.

  • Rule System: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No distance between the work itself and the experience of the reader/viewer.
  • Analytical strategy: As this is the most irrational level based purely on individual experience, the easiest element to access and analyze is individual emotional/visceral reaction.
  • In brief: As the narrative or artistic experience requires the elimination of the barrier between self and other, this is the most basic and purest level of an artwork or narrative, and each subsequent level must contain this at its core. This level could be called “Absurd” as absurd narratives are the most characteristic examples and least likely to contain one of the other levels as well, and it’s provocative to say that all narratives must be absurd at their core, but that word contains so much baggage it may be counter-productive. Most philosophical treatments of absurdity as a concept are Rhetorical in nature, not truly and purely absurd. The Ecstatic level is the level of pure artistic absurdity where philosophy is irrelevant and unnecessary (in other words, absurdity certainly isn’t a problem to be solved). To clarify, narratives or artistic works can function on other levels, and often with more purely absurd texts critics attempt to impose order and meaning on them (the need to impose unnecessary order and meaning on things is a common and often intense desire); however, since absurdity/ecstasy is at the core of all successful narratives and art works, meaning and order are more incidental factors than necessary components. There is resistance to recognizing this as the core of all art, arguably, for two reasons: 1) artifice appears impure; 2) pleasure for its own sake engenders discomfort and seems like a frivolous, indulgent, gratuitous, or self-serving moral violation. The answer to both of these objections/misconceptions is in the nature of ecstatic engagement: it eliminates the barrier between self and other. It is artifice (and all art is artifice to a degree) only in that it has no necessary relationship with physical reality and exists primarily in the interaction between self and other free of barriers. Tangible/physical/material reality is only more pure than this if you believe science is the only authentic mechanism for discovering truth. That is a valid position to hold, but it is hardly helpful in creating or understanding art. This connects likewise with the notion that ecstasy is mere frivolity or self-pleasing immorality, but empathy (elimination of the barrier between self and other) should be the root of morality, arguably, and is the root of morality in many religions, from the “Love your neighbor as yourself” of Jesus to the compassionate non-duality of Buddha. To feel the pain and joy of another can only be immoral frivolity if your moral system is devoid of empathy as an essential component. Again, this is a valid position but hardly relevant to art.
  • Favorite Examples: Incidences by Daniil Kharms, Amedée by Eugene Ionesco, “Sorrows of a Family Man” by Franz Kafka, etc. Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” is essential reading in understanding the one-to-one interaction of the ecstatic text and the irrelevance of universality.

2)Paratactic: The juxtaposition of viscerally stimulating but seemingly unrelated images without a rational, directly stated, or necessary connection.

  • Rule system: No rule system.
  • Subordination: No element is necessarily subordinated to another, by definition, but images can relate to elements or concepts outside of the text itself.
  • Analytical strategy: Determine the images that create a visceral response in juxtaposition. Do not look for a rational connection but a purely irrational resonance. If you find a rational connection, especially where one element is subordinated to the other, this likely qualifies as the Representational level and muddies the aesthetic purity with overt rationality.
  • In brief: The line between the Ecstatic and Paratactic level are blurred since both levels function quite similarly. However, the Paratactic differentiates from the Ecstatic in that images can relate to concepts or a so-called reality outside of the text. For example, a William Carlos Williams poem might relate a “red wheelbarrow” and “white chickens” without stating how they connect (a classic, basic example of parataxis), but understanding of this parataxis might relate to the reader’s own experience or concept of farming or poverty without necessarily subordinating the images to the concepts or experiences. The text, however, becomes one step away from the pure ecstatic experience in this outward-stretching web. Another example: a text might contain multiple blue objects, and the reader may yearn to find some rational connection between these blue objects. However, the yearning for connection (a type of visceral stimulation vital for this level) is far more important than an actual, rational connection, and the reader may think of traditional associations of blue and the Virgin Mary without necessarily subordinating the text to Christian concepts. In other words, the color blue does not necessarily make the text about (“about” generally implying a level of subordination) the Virgin Mary or Christianity simply because of the presence of blue, but this irrational connection could add visceral value to the text. If the weight of history aids in arguing the importance of parataxis, subordinating a text to abstractions may be the traditional Western way of understanding a narrative (thus the taken-for-granted superior position), but parataxis is the traditional Eastern way of understanding imagery in multiple art forms.

3)Mythological: This narrative level functions based on its own internal rule system.

  • Rule system: Internal rule system set by the author, genre, narrative conventions, etc.
  • Subordination: A concept of order is grafted on the irrational/visceral elements of the text, but this rule system is essentially arbitrary; it may relate to rule systems in reality/outside of the text, but this is not necessary.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal rule system and how the text fulfills or violates this rule system; recognize the relationship between the imposed order and the irrational, visceral core. For example, if a character has imposed a system of order on the absurd universe, does he/she violate this imposed order, or does the universe violate/fulfill this order in some way?
  • In brief: I call this level “mythological,” not because it has a relationship to myth criticism (as most of that sort of criticism functions on the Representational or Rhetorical level) or any narrative identified as myth (which is only one of many other types of stories on the Mythological level) but because it comes from the same impulse as myth making: to impose order on the disorderly whether or not that order has any rational relationship with scientifically measurable reality. Myths, likewise, must conform only to their own ordered system and not necessarily to any system outside of themselves. I would go further and say most narratives, by the nature of being a narrative, are intrinsically mythological if they have any sense of order or conform to any rule system. The most obvious place to see this is in so-called “genre” fiction – a vampire story follows the well-established vampire rules or sets its own but follows those consistently. However, internal rule systems are as relevant to a so-called “literary” work as they are to a so-called “genre” work. The terms “literary” and “genre” are grossly inaccurate and sloppily applied in most cases, but considering their relationship with internal rule systems clarifies their basic difference more accurately: a “genre” work conforms to rule systems within its own type and a “literary” work establishes its own, supposedly (and a “literary” work becomes “genre” when it follows the rule system established by the “literary” type). However, the most egregiously applied term associated with this level is “escapism” – escapism is indeed one of the effects of works which remain more purely within the Mythological level, but this one effect is hardly its most significant value. “Escapism,” especially in its pejorative sense, inverts the value system placing so-called reality above the narrative experience. The narrative experience can as easily be considered a greater level of reality. The relationship between the mythological and the realistic level is incidental – so-called reality fills in the gaps left by mythology but is far from a necessary condition of mythology.

4)Psychological: A separation between the purer aesthetic levels and reality by attributing the contrast to an internal/external split.

  • Rule system: Two separate rule systems, internal and external. The internal rule system may function the same as the Ecstatic, Paratactic, or Mythological level, but the subordination implies that the external rule system functions the same as the Realistic level.
  • Subordination: The non-realistic or seemingly disorderly elements are subordinated to external reality because they are attributed to psychological reflections of external factors.
  • Analytical strategy: Identify the internal and external elements in the story and determine how one reflects the other; for example, how does a non-real element reflect some more realistic element within a character’s world or something psychologically significant to the character?
  • In brief: This is the transition between irrational and rational levels because it acknowledges the value of both sides. However, this dilutes the aesthetic power of the Ecstatic core because it is subordinated to so-called reality. This is not necessarily limited to psychoanalytical criticism or rules of psychology, psychoanalysis, etc. though this can be enlightening method for approaching texts on this level. Most forms of criticism hover in the Representational level, but the Psychological level can resonate in both directions as long as it remains rooted in this two-level contrast between internal and external forces. For example, elements can function by internal rules, thus making it a Mythological narrative, but function simultaneously on the Representational level if elements stand in for abstract concepts. If this resonance takes place on two levels – for example, Mythological elements take place inside a character’s mind while Representational elements are outside of the character’s mind – and the internal elements are subordinate to the external elements, this narrative exists on the Psychological level.

5)Realistic: The narrative exists to depict something in the real (material, tangible, physical) world.

  • Rule system: The narrative must follow the rules of the scientifically measurable, so-called real world.
  • Subordination: The narrative is subordinated to the real world outside of it.
  • Analytical strategy: Focus on the accuracy of the narrative within the context of the real world. For example, an element inaccurate to material existence, scientifically established rule systems, or social conventions becomes a flaw.
  • In brief: While works within the genre called “Realism” are often depicted as purer forms for their elimination of imaginative elements, they are aesthetically impure because of their dependence on a material, tangible, physical reality outside of the texts. Any consideration of the text’s basis in reality displaces value from the text and places value in elements only incidental to the text’s core Ecstatic value. This is not applicable only to texts based on real events or texts in which events are depicted as being real. More important at this level is recognition of a narrative as being dependent on reality and valuation of the accuracy of this depiction of reality. However, if a text functions to reflect some universal concept (like the “human condition,” etc.) or has non-realistic elements which stand in for universal concepts, it is more likely Representational, a step further in subordination.

6)Representational: The narrative stands in for some abstract concept such as philosophy, sociological perspective/condition, or universalized concept of humanity.

  • Rule system: The narrative may follow essentially the same rules as the Realistic level but applied universally or at least broadly to a sociological condition, or it may follow the rules or principles of a particular philosophy without necessarily making an endpoint argument.
  • Subordination: Both real and non-real elements are subordinated to universal/philosophical concepts.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Rhetorical level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: When considering narrative analysis, this and the Rhetorical level are too often considered the only relevant levels or the levels with the greatest capacity to highlight the value of a narrative – this is the limited perspective I’m attempting to correct. The concept is that a narrative has value in that it “means” something or is “about” something when this perspective separates, by several levels of subordination, the narrative from its core aesthetic value. The Representational level essentially bridges the Realistic and Rhetorical level in that realistic elements are elevated into the abstract realm by being treated as representations of universal conditions (humans aren’t humans but stand in for all of humanity, for example) or reflect one of thousands of possible philosophical perspectives without necessarily making an argument (which would qualify it as Rhetorical). The various philosophies are well-established within criticism, so I need not spend much time explaining them, but an example might be a Marxist perspective which views elements within a text as representations of class oppression, commodification, historical cycles of revolution, etc. Characters aren’t people but social forces and conditions and only have value in their capacity to represent.

7)Rhetorical: A catch all term for anything with an endpoint value based in some abstract concept, argument, lesson, etc.

  • Rule system: The narrative must consistently follow the principles of the argument or lesson.
  • Subordination: Elements within the narrative are subordinate to the argument or lesson.
  • Analytical strategy: As most criticism hovers in this or the Representational level, analytical strategies are well-established elsewhere.
  • In brief: I call this level “Rhetorical” for the sake of the catchy three R’s of rational-level narrative subordination, but this includes many types of narratives beyond the argumentative – didactic narratives, for example. The significance is that the narrative has a purpose or that the narrative is leading to a particular end. This endpoint may be open to interpretation, but the writer is proposing some rhetorical premise subject to the rules of rhetoric or a moral principle subject to the rules or designed to develop or disseminate that particular moral principle. It differs from the Representational level only in that a Representational narrative can function more purely as a portrait of an abstract or universalized concept, but the Rhetorical level further subordinates that portrait to the ultimate purpose, argument, lesson, etc.
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The Principles of Particulate Stimulation (a Theory of How to Make and Understand Art)

I developed the system/concept I call “particulate stimulation” as, I hope, a practical tool for fiction writers – a way to understand the internal mechanisms of fiction’s interaction with the reader – but I believe these concepts are applicable to all the arts and to serious criticism as well (since I have yet to encounter a critical strategy that approaches the arts in this way).

In short, the concept rests on the notion that the primary, irreducible value in fiction (or in any experience of the arts) is in the direct stimulation of the reader (viewer, audience, etc.) that breaks down the barrier between self and other. This is an essentially irrational, gut-level act, so the irrational and the gut-level understanding of fiction (and other arts) is favored as a primary value. I call this value “primary” and “irreducible” because it is the first value to consider – whether or not it is the greatest value is up to the individual – and it is the one value that remains once other values are eliminated. If one were to ask “Is this piece of fiction (etc) good?” and “Why is it good?” one might name a large number of possible values, but if one were to say “Without this value, could this be good?” or “In the history of fiction (or art), has an example of a good work existed without this value?” and eliminate values in this manner one by one, the only one remaining would be stimulation. For example, values such as meaning, reflection of philosophical/social concepts, or universal model of behavior might be cited as a story’s source of value, but could a story be valuable without any of these? Yes, of course it could. However, could a story be valuable devoid of stimulation? Unlikely. So, in the practical sense of optimizing this irreducible value, the writer then considers them secondary. The role of meaning or social reflection, for example, becomes a secondary function to how these factors optimize stimulation.

The writer must also understand how the drive toward stimulation and the irrational breakdown in barriers between self and other meets the contradictory drive to eliminate stimulation (I simplify these forces below as “The Gut” and “The Mind”). To load a story with excessive emotions or completely irrational oddities, for example, might meet with the mind’s resistance to emotions and oddities, including the complex array of mental mechanisms designed for this resistance (such as subordination and categorization). To optimize the stimulation, the writer must strategically recognize these mechanisms for resistance and craft accordingly – to evade the gatekeepers, in other words.

This concept was designed to compensate for the massive deficiencies in my own creative writing education in which teachers would rely on superficial truisms or false universals without the capacity to explain or justify them. It was like teaching a cooking class by naming all the pots and pans but giving no clear understanding of flavors and the interaction between flavors. Following clichés like “show, don’t tell” might make a story more snappy, but why? I never got a good explanation, so I had to come up with one of my own: concrete imagery engages the gut while abstract narration engages the mind.

That being said, here is a simplified list of various factors to consider in understanding Particulate Stimulation:

Overview:

The Mind: Designed to eliminate stimulation (e.g. danger, discomfort, etc.) through:

  • Subordination (creating a hierarchy to organize the chaos)
  • Abstraction (elevation into the undying ideal)
  • Turning the irrational into symbols/metaphors
  • Categorization/Separation (favoring the safe over the dangerous)
  • Resolution of mystery

The Gut: Seeks stimulation (food, sex, mortal danger, etc.) by eliminating barriers between self and other (leading the reader to vicarious experiences):

  • Danger/fear
  • Rage
  • Desire
  • Gratification of physical needs (food, sex, etc.)
  • Unresolved mystery
  • Happy feelings (to a lesser extent)

Comfort/Discomfort: Though the mind seeks elimination of stimulation, one type of stimulation it accepts is comfort.

The Mind: Comforting stimulators:

  • Brief bursts of stimulation:
    • Conflict resolution
    • Mystery resolution
    • Fulfillment of desires
    • Epiphany
    • Catharsis (the false notion that art exists solely to eliminate stimulation)
  •  Function often as coda to end a story
  • Often mistaken as the main point of the story

The Gut: Discomforting stimulators:

  • More sustained source of stimulation throughout a story
  • A majority of the value is in optimizing discomfort
  • But also doing so without the mind rejecting the text (in its need for comfort)

Imagery:

The Mind:

  • Favors abstraction.
  • Concrete imagery is subordinate to abstract ideas.
  • Images stand in for or “mean” something

The Gut:

  • Parataxis: The juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated image without a directly stated connection.
  • Dislocation (the surrealist version of parataxis): Disconnected images dislocate the viewer/reader from the present world, create a dreamlike effect

Characters:

The Mind: A character:

  • Stands in as a universal model
  • Represents the human condition
  • Learns a lesson so we can learn a lesson
  • Leads to vicarious catharsis
  • Resolves paradoxes.

The Gut:

  • Driven by irrational desire
  • Full of unresolved paradox
  • “Negative Capability”: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—John Keats

Repetition:

The Mind:

  • Mechanical Repetition:
    • Copies must be exact to eliminate possibility of failure/danger
    • This creates a diminishing return as stimulation reduces with each copy)

The Gut:

  • Organic Repetition:
    • Another stimulating irrational paradox: both unique and of a pattern
    • Repetition of some patterns while remaining individual (as with any living being) indicates the presence of life without overt mental control
    • The rule of threes: 2 occurrences might be coincidences and 4 verges on mechanical repetition, so 3 indicates the presence of life.
    • The most pleasing music has been historically based on a 3 part pattern

Guardians of the Galaxy vs. The Infinity Watch: How Brian Michael Bendis Makes One Appreciate Jim Starlin’s Character Genius

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Cosmic comic book characters, like the Guardians of the Galaxy, may be the geekiest kinds of characters: a whole pocket of sci fi characters within the greater context of a comic book universe — like Lord of the Rings, with its own complexity, has a secret pocket full of Star Wars. Still, it is a rich vein of fantastic characters who remain unjustifiably obscure. This richness in Marvel’s cosmic comics is mostly thanks to Jim Starlin who created many of the characters including four of my favorites, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, Adam Warlock and Thanos. Thanos gave perhaps the greatest exposure this geekdom-within-geekdom has ever received: he was seen for a few seconds by millions in the closing credits of The Avengers movie, and those in the theater who knew who this character was were inevitably screaming with joy: joy in the promise of future spectacle in later Thanos appearances – but joy more so, I would argue, that one of the greatest characters ever created was finally coming to the big screen. And character, despite assumptions to the contrary, is the greatest value in comics, the feature by which a title lives or dies and the reason why movies can never hope to live up to their source – the reason why we geeks attach ourselves so passionately for so many years to something outsiders fail to understand.

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Guardians of the Galaxy, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention lately with preparation for the movie to come out next year – to centrally feature Drax and Gamora, and also Thanos, according to rumor – and the new comic of the same title timed to coincide with this hoopla. The comic Guardians of the Galaxy (vol. 3), written by Brian Michael Bendis with pencils by Steve McNiven, is on one level a great over-the-top space opera in the tradition of anything written by Starlin in his 70s or 90s golden age. If you’re a comic book fan, it’s hard to not appreciate the beautiful Steve McNiven pencils, the snappy dialogue, and rompy space battles. The problem is it’s heavy on the spectacle, the area Aristotle deemed least significant and the area non-fans assume is the sole composition of comic books. I have no problem with spectacle – why deprive anything of spectacle when it works well? – but spectacle by nature is short lived. It provides a temporary burst of sensation which is great in its own right but simply isn’t built to hold the weight of years. It feels dirty to agree with Aristotle on anything, but I’d say spectacle is only of less importance in terms of duration, not any false objectivity.

What non-fans just don’t get is that comics are, by nature, long term storytelling forms. I’ve been a fan of Adam Warlock, the Avengers, and so on for over twenty years, and The Avengers comics have been in steady publication for fifty years. If comics really were built only on spectacle, the repetitiveness would burn them out in only a few years – how many times can Ultron threaten to destroy all humanity before it gets tedious? No, comics are built on characters – a story element historically demonstrated to be the surest anchor for long term storytelling

To say the Bendis Guardians of the Galaxy is weak in this area is a purely selfish need: I want Guardians of the Galaxy to last, but Bendis so far hasn’t done much to help the characters transcend spectacle. Star Lord, the leader, seems only like a bland blonde hero with poorly defined daddy issues that don’t yet add together to make him interesting. He has been made blonde from his former brunette appearance perhaps to indicate he’s lazily placed on a spectrum between two other blonde heroes, Captain America and Hawkeye – kinda good and moral like Cap but kinda rebellious and snarky like Hawkeye. Rocket Raccoon, Star Lord’s gun-toting raccoon sidekick, is so far only a one-liner machine, and one liners are great, but if any relationship is based merely on the cleverness of one liners, it’s unlikely to be lifelong, only a fling where you look back in later years and say, “Whatever happened to that raccoon I used to be friends with? He was funny.” Then there’s Groot who is a tree, so, well, he’s a tree. He punches stuff like a tree would punch stuff, and that’s cool – I’d be the last one to reject a story element that awesome – but at the end of the day, he’s a tree and not much else. I want to love them more than this. These three extraordinarily obscure characters – obscure even by cosmic comic standards – were resurrected several years ago in Annihilation: Conquest, seemingly only as a fulfillment of some trivia challenge, so despite my desire for them to work well as characters, there isn’t much history to demonstrate that this is possible. The title has other characters – Iron Man, Gamora, and Drax the Destroyer – who do have an established history of character development, but Bendis has so far squandered the resources. The banter between Iron Man and Rocket, the most entertaining aspect of the first few issues, has given only little hints at possible character development. It’s like Daniel Day Lewis cast in a Kevin Smith movie; you know he’s just waiting to do something amazing, but those at the helm just don’t have the goods to make that happen.

Perhaps the reason I mourn the lack of character development in Guardians of the Galaxy so far is because Jim Starlin is so good at it, and the title is so similar to a title from twenty years earlier, Starlin’s Warlock and the Infinity Watch. Comparing both titles on the surface, the earlier title may seem a lot cheesier – perhaps because the McNiven pencils seem so slick or maybe it’s the 90s haircuts – but if you look at Starlin’s run on Warlock and the Infinity Watch, you can see how much time Starlin spends on character development, whole issues just exploring who some of these characters are. The essential set up of the title gets more complicated than any non-fan ever needs to tackle, but essentially the five main characters are given Infinity Gems, the most powerful weapons in the universe which made the villain Thanos essentially God – as seen in Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet, a story generally agreed by comic book fans to be one of the greatest of all time – and the first issue of Warlock and the Infinity Watch is spent with two cosmic entities arguing about whether these characters are even worthy. The beginning is not spent on what will make these characters cool and fun, Starlin doesn’t start with a big space battle like Bendis – he starts with what will make these characters worthy of interest, lovable but in that frustrating love/hate that keeps us hooked forever like nerd heroin.

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Starlin is skilled at using a feature of all great characters we love: paradox. The technique he uses to make these characters complex and fascinating is deceptively simple when taken apart, and it can seem like a crutch or gimmick at times, but it’s remarkably effective. Making paradox work for characters is not as simple as giving a character two opposites to play out. It must be organic paradox, irreconcilable opposites that seem natural and unforced, to truly have the long term effect necessary. Starlin sets aside whole issues in his run of Infinity Watch exploring the organic paradox of individual characters. Gamora, for example, gets the solo in issue nine. She is the adopted daughter of Thanos – and Thanos has perhaps the most extraordinarily complicated Starlin paradox, but more on him in a moment – who trains her as an assassin from a young age, merely a tool he uses to complete a bigger plan. In a flashback in Infinity Watch, Starlin tells how Gamora is gang raped and brutally beaten at a young age; Thanos finds her nearly dead, and he reconstructs her body to be nearly invulnerable. He then slaughters all of her attackers. Her organic paradox is a merciless coldness when assassinating targets, but this is driven by a deep vulnerability and fear. Likewise, she’s prone to seek love from a strong male, as demonstrated by the arc-long infatuation she has for Adam Warlock, the leader of the team, who is nearly as distant and manipulative as Thanos while showing the same sort of paradoxical kindness. Starlin shows that no hero is completely kind, no villain is completely heartless, and an assassin’s coldness has an emotional source.

This sort of paradox stimulates readers in part because it is so essentially relatable – it’s too human to be torn apart or undermined as it might in abstract logic – which leads to an effective long term anchor since the more deeply we relate to a character, the more loyal we become. Fitzgerald called believing two opposite thing the mark of genius, but it’s the mark of humanity (of course Fitzgerald would consider his own humanity the mark of genius). But I wouldn’t attribute this solely to the that old Aristotilean inaccuracy “the human condition” – to claim all humans know what it feels like to be gang raped and become cold because of it is not only inaccurate but belittling – so I’ll add a factor which I consider much more accurate: paradox works so well because the act of reading itself is paradoxical. Gamora’s infatuation with Adam Warlock and her paradoxical resistance to such feelings is a perfect parallel of this: to welcome the vulnerability of becoming the other while simultaneously resisting it is the essential condition of the reading experience. Paradox hooks us so hard because of the guilt and delight of finding in these characters precisely what we are doing. This is why spectacle has such short term effect: not because it’s shallow, whatever that means, but its distilled stimulation fails to ignite the multiplicity of stimulation that comes with both wanting and resisting the beautiful awfulness of becoming another person. This likewise disproves the Aristotelian catharsis nonsense: if the value in a text comes from reconciling tension and releasing emotion, these comic book characters really would be as valueless as some make them until their stories come to an end. I argue instead that the tension of the paradoxical itself is the source of value and overcoming that tension is merely the mark of the end, not the purpose or goal. The relative effectiveness of a comic book story that retains tension and one that releases tension is clearest place to demonstrate this.

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So to frame Gamora as merely a kick ass assassin – as she seems too often in the Bendis version with the exception of some brief references to “daddy issues” and some perfect expressions rendered by McNiven indicating the multiplicity of what’s hidden behind her eyes – then it’s fun for a while to watch her kick ass until she gets boring because all she’s doing is kicking ass as a kick ass assassin; she’s merely a cold killer who remains cold from no emotional resonance, merely as a function of the story.

In fairness, Starlin struggled with characterization of Drax as he seemed too married to Drax as a joke. The organic paradox that defines Drax is that he was created to kill Thanos and has that monomaniacal urge built deep within him, but at the same time he is a caring father – he was only a normal dad named Arthur Douglas before Thanos killed him and threatened his daughter Heather’s life, and Kronos resurrected him to be his anti-Thanos weapon. In Infinity Watch, Drax is suffering the after effects of an attack by his daughter – who has become the semi-evil super-psychic Moondragon in one of those Starlin-esque paradoxes – who has wiped his mind in the fight that ended his comic book presence back in the 70’s. During his 90’s resurrection, he appears merely as a childish doofus whose banter with Pip the Troll (the Infinity Watch equivalent of Rocket Raccoon) functions like the entertaining but forgettable dialogue between Rocket and Iron Man. Drax really reaches his potential as a great character with Keith Giffen’s depiction in the first Annihilation as once again the killing machine with echoes of his former identity as normal father pulling him in opposite directions. So far Bendis has put Drax firmly in the background which is, by far, the biggest waste of the series.

On the other hand, a potential flaw in my argument might be that Warlock and the Infinity Watch did not last long, around three years, a short run for a comic. There can be various reasons for this. Perhaps the characters were too obscure and failed to gain a more mainstream interest, or perhaps Starlin spent too much time on character and not enough on spectacle. Another problem with the title that still affects smaller titles today, like the most recent incarnation of Guardians of the Galaxy to end – volume 2 which only ended in 2010 – is getting too caught up in major event stories. The Avengers can survive a major event story like Infinity Gauntlet because they have a well-established identity separate from the story, but Infinity Watch was born out of Infinity Gauntlet and lasted through Infinity War, Infinity Crusade, and Blood and Thunder. Without a separate identity, the end of events like these feels like closure for the whole series. Thus, the previous Guardians of the Galaxy was born out of Annihilation: Conquest and ended with The Thanos Imperative. This worries me about the role of present Guardians of the Galaxy in the upcoming Infinity event, but it’s too early to know.

More importantly, what Infinity Watch was missing and the current incarnation of Guardians of the Galaxy is missing – and one key to long term character love and what I’m more desperate to have in some of the lesser known comic book teams that I and very few others love like The Defenders, The Slingers, certain incarnations of The Thunderbolts – is a really good archenemy. Archenemies make all these elements pop in just the right way: they help us fall in love with the good guys by contrasting or reflecting their paradoxical qualities and are quite frequently fascinating paradoxical characters themselves. The Avengers archenemy Ultron isn’t just a one dimensional robot; he’s obsessed with the least robotic and most human element: family. This functions to highlight the contradictions of humanity inherent in the human characters and the way family creates the most dysfunction and most complex emotion and deepest tie between them. Infinity Watch starts with one of Adam Warlock’s old archenemies, the Man-Beast, and these first few issues present the most effective balance of elements because the story is a character study of Warlock as communicated through the necessary spectacle of comics as facilitated by Man-Beast’s master plan. Starlin most often accomplishes character development through flashback and contrasting history to present state – sort of the Lost method of storytelling – which is a simple way to do it but can become a crutch. That first story of the Man-Beast works even better than merely contrasting flashbacks because he highlights all the contradictions of Warlock’s past but does it through tension in the present moment. Warlock is an inhuman construct who struggles to be human, as reflected by Man-Beast’s inhumanity. He has had the messiah role thrust upon him without the requisite wisdom that would allow him to know how to deal with hard decisions like having to kill the Man-Beast – as he has in their previous encounter, but death is not permanent in comics, so Man-Beast of course would come back – and this guilt over killing Man-Beast the first time resonates in the present moment. This messiah role also leads him to be controlling and manipulative (and this is reflected most effectively in his other archenemy, the Magus, a dark mirror of Warlock who uses the messiah role to gather an army of worshipers) though Warlock always strives to be compassionate and to understand what human compassion means. His soul gem allows him to steal the souls of others, something he finds horrific, but he secretly wishes only to rest within the paradise of the soul gem without the responsibility of being a hero. The Man-Beast, by stealing the soul gem, highlights the complexity of choices that are far from black and white (black and white choices don’t maintain interest long and aren’t, despite the assumptions of outsiders, the core of comic book storytelling). But Man-Beast is only Warlock’s archenemy and doesn’t manage to maintain that status for the whole team; the perfect balance of those first six issues disappears as self-defining story arch is subsumed by a mix of character study and event build up.

Thanos can be considered the archenemy of the group as he has traditionally been the archenemy of all the heroes in the Marvel Universe but most often the cosmic ones, but in some ways Starlin is the victim of his own success in this case. He made Thanos too complex and too contradictory to actually function as a villain for his title. Thanos is really an ally of the Infinity Watch, but it’s hard to even call him hero. Here’s how Thanos is the ultimate Starlin-esque paradox: Thanos first grew to hate existence because of bitterness over his grotesque appearance and his exile from his community. First motivations: vanity and insecurity. He then sought to destroy his people but became fixated by his own scientific inquiry into the mechanism of the universe, often pursuing scientific inquiry for its own sake. Second motivation: curiosity about existence. Through his inquiry into the nature of existence, he finds and falls in love with the embodiment of death. Third motivation: love. So he seeks means (scientific inquiry) to increase his power and control over others (vanity) through technology/mysticism/cosmic power objects/etc. to ultimately slaughter masses to win Mistress Death’s attention (love) though, as a conceptual entity, she can never give him her love (insecurity). Many fans consider the greatest Thanos moment (and therefore, I would argue, the greatest moment in comics) when Captain America in The Infinity Gauntlet stands up to Thanos, who has become capital-G-God and dismissively bitch slaps him to death (and Captain America’s complexity comes from moral certainty meeting morally uncertain scenarios – for example, stupidly facing ridiculously overwhelming odds and a bitch-slap-death based on a moral ideal that has failed in the face of evil’s clear, decisive win in this case) but my favorite part of The Infinity Gauntlet is Thanos losing godhood – allowing in his vanity a blindspot which leads to Nebula, his granddaughter who has been tortured throughout the story, to steal the gauntlet, the source of his power – and having to join the heroes to stop Nebula. Warlock and Thanos discuss in great detail later how this is all a result of his insecurity: because he believes he doesn’t deserve to be God, he subconsciously leaves this blindspot that leads to his own failure. So Thanos is such a great villain he could only beat himself. My favorite Thanos moment, however, is in Annihilation when Drax, finally succeeds in the directive of his new birth, killing Thanos by thrusting his hand through Thanos’ back, clutching Thanos’ heart in his fist. Thanos looks down at his own heart and says, “Interesting.” That’s such a perfect moment because it sums up what’s so great about Thanos in one image (and what’s so great about Drax since he is trying to protect his daughter at that moment). “Interesting” is his scientific inquiry but also metaphorically witnessing that heart that motivated him so long in his love for Death. It’s also arrogantly demeaning to Drax whose most badass moment only elicits this dismissive response. All the complexity of personal history can be wrapped up in a perfect image and a simple word like “interesting.” While Starlin’s flashback contrasts are gimmicky crutches that work fanatastically, that moment shows it only takes one panel.

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Thanos is the main villain of the upcoming Infinity event for which Guardians of the Galaxy will be central, and this is a positive development since Thanos improves everything, but this does little to serve Guardians of the Galaxy as Thanos won’t likely stick around long after the story is over. If they hope for any longevity, Bendis needs to tie delight in the title to more than jokes and alien battles. He has no shortage of potential material, as Starlin demonstrated for years; he simply needs to know how to use it.