Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, vol. 1 (review)

Ziggy first page

In Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, Vol. 1, written by Ron Baxley, Jr., and illustrated by Vincent Myrand, a Welsh Corgi named Ziggy bravely navigates multiple familiar fantasy worlds (Neverland, Oz, and Wonderland), and Baxley likewise bravely and expertly navigates multiple conflicting narrative rule systems to create a prime example of the inevitable endpoint in the development of fantasy, what you might call the exponential pastiche.

Pastiche became catch all term for a variety of techniques for intertextual referencing in analysis of postmodern fiction (e.g. Slaughterhouse Five is a pastiche of war fiction, sci fi, and confessional memoir), as if such a technique suddenly came into existence after WWII, but pastiche has been intrinsic to children’s narratives from the very beginning. Fairy tales passed down orally inevitably mixed up multiple narratives elements and styles with anachronistic present day cultural elements for maximum (exciting or terrifying) impact. As cultures increasingly intermixed, the pastiche mixed even more erratically. Witness, for example, how Norse and Greek myth mix freely in Medieval tales or how the pagan King Arthur is searching for the Christian Holy Grail.

Then came the golden age of children’s book publication (heavily referenced throughout Ziggy) starting, arguably, with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865 and spanning through the publication of the Peter Pan books and plays and L. Frank Baum’s massive oeuvre of Oz sequels and other similar fantasy books. This great golden age had such a significant impact that other great periods in children’s book publication seem to be echoes of this period. For example, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, and Maurice Sendak published during what was conventionally identified as the postmodern period, but their pastiche was more in keeping with Wonderland and Oz than the current trends in novel writing. Another monument to the value of this period is the continuous publication of Oz sequels (several of which Baxley himself has written) after Baum’s death and the posthumous publication of his last Oz novel, Glinda of Oz, in 1920. What defines the post-Wonderland style of pastiche is placing the protagonist firmly in the present (Alice is unmistakbly a girl of the 1860s), and the fantastical elements he or she encounters are a mix of familiar elements from across the culture (Carroll, for example, did not create Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, characters from orally passed down and apparently authorless nursery rhymes – let alone mythological creatures like gryphons or unicorns) mixed with original characters. This is done with a heavy sense of ironic humor that predates postmodernism by a century. The Alice books are able to manage the necessary chaos of this pastiche technique with charm and cleverness, but this chaos is hard to manage. The significant development of Peter and Wendy and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the inclusion of a definite plot thread, identifiable geography (including maps in many cases) that can’t be simply dismissed as dreams, and, most significantly, an internal rule system. The internal rule system is the most important feature of any fantasy series since the fantasy world has no necessary obligation to follow the rule system of our world, but audiences can view the fantasy as a success or failure by its consistent adherence to its internal rule system: an elf must act consistently like an elf in Middle Earth, and so on.

To take a preexisting and already heavily pastiched story world like Neverland or Oz is to tiptoe the minefield of conflicting narrative rule systems, and Baxley, as an experienced Oz chronicler, manages this feat expertly. Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic starts by rooting Ziggy, the Corgi protagonist, in Welsh mythology where Corgis are treated as steeds for elves. The narrative moves quickly to Neverland where pixie dust and happy thoughts allow any sentient being to fly though animals are not endowed with speech. Baxley then introduces an original reinterpretation of a preexisting element: the crocodile has become essentially a demon lord of undead pirates. Baxley introduces several villains throughout the first volume (some familiar, some reinterpretations) that seem to be set up for pay off in later volumes because, in the episodic structure true to the source material, Ziggy moves on to another adventure instead of fully culminating this crocodile conflict. Ziggy next enters Oz where animals can speak, but flight is only possible with wings. Since the pixie dust retains its efficacy from the previous adventure, this is a direct overlay of Neverland and Oz rule systems. In this adventure, Baxley further integrates superhero tropes as Ziggy accompanies a flying monkey in his conflict with an evil mad scientist right out of old Captain America comics. Baxley doesn’t take the easy way out by segregating tropes and rule systems; he piles it all on top of each other. It’s remarkable that this pastiche-of-pastiche actually works. Part of its success comes from the charm of Ziggy himself who must overcome his anxiety (framed anachronistically in a contemporary manner just as Alice’s own concerns are anachronistically Victorian) to defeat overwhelming odds and eventually face all the accumulating villains, but that’s the key to managing the superficial chaos of cultural mix-and-match: a charming character like Alice or Wendy or Dorothy or Ziggy can guide us delightfully through any scenario.

Let me not forget to give credit to the illustrations of Vincent Myrand who is more reminiscent of Quinten Blake’s illustrations of Roald Dahl stories than John Tenniel’s clean-lined, relatively realistic Alice illustrations or or John R. Neill’s similar illustrations of the Oz books. It may have most in common with W. W. Denslow’s original Oz illustrations: the playful lines, the more childlike sense of proportion, the vibrant colors. However, the squiggly quality of the lines and the loose color fill is so reminiscent of Blake’s technique, it makes me wonder if Ziggy will soon enter one of Dahl’s worlds in future volumes. Together, Baxley and Myrand give plenty to look forward to in future volumes.

Information from the author:

Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, Volume 1 is available in the comics section/front of Book Exchange of Ft. Gordon Blvd. in Augusta, Ga., Top Dog Pawn (and comics) on Washington Rd. in Augusta, Ga., Silver City Comics in Cayce, S.C., Scratch N Spin in W. Columbia, S.C., Punk Monkey Comics in Forest Acres in Columbia, S.C., Planet Comics in Anderson, S.C., the Little Red Barn art shop on Hwy. 278 in Barnwell, S.C., and The Caroline Collection antiques in Denmark, S.C. It is also available outside the region at the All Things Oz Museum gift shop in Chittenango, New York and Comics ‘N More in Easthampton, Massachusetts. It may soon be available in Bodacious Books and Baubles in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts and The Book Tavern on Broad St. in Augusta.

Ron has a contest going on where if people find a custom mini-figure of Ziggy from Skittychu Clay and Art in Augusta at one of these places in S.C. and Augusta above and agree to have their photo taken with the figure and his graphic novel and have their likeness used via social media, they will be able to keep the mini-figure absolutely free.

Ziggy figure

Oz, fantasy, and science fiction children’s and young adult author Ron Baxley, Jr., a former educator of approximately 20 years and published author of 25 years, has most recently had an Oz collection, The Oz Omnibus of Talking City Tales and an Oz/Wonderland combined co-written with James C. Wallace II, Of Cabbages, Kings, Queens, Flying Pigs, and Dismal Things, published by Maple Creek Press of Mysteria Filmworks in Cincinnati Ohio (http://www.maplecreekpress.com ) and has independently published a volume of a fantasy, Corgi graphic novel with some Oz content, Ziggy Zig-zags the Light and Dark Fantastic, with art by Maine artist Vincent Myrand and layout and lettering/bubbles by Ali Tavakoly (email rbaxley37@gmail.com for information on obtaining Volume 1 of this independent project or look at the list of stores in which it is available). Ron Baxley, Jr. has been formally invited as a guest author in Authors and Artists Alley in Oz-Stravaganza, a festival in Chittenango, New York in the birthplace of L. Frank Baum, for six years, has been formally invited as a special guest author or guest author at Oz festivals and science fiction cons since 2010, and was recently awarded the honor of a lifetime membership by the International L. Frank Baum and All Things Oz Foundation in Chittenango, New York in June for his lifetime achievements in the world of Oz.

For more information, go to http://rbaxley37.wix.com/ronbaxleyjrofoz, search for the Ziggy Zig-Zags the Light and Dark Fantastic group Facebook page, seek Oz fan Sera Alexia Starr’s Facebook page, Ron Baxley Jr. An Official Author’s Group Chat With Book Updates (https://www.facebook.com/groups/196187527438597/ ), and/or befriend Ron on Facebook.

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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.