Randy Hoyt, the editor of Journey to the Sea, and I have been talking back and forth for awhile about some of the concepts that come up in my blog entries here, particularly, recently, the difference between what a thing *is* and what a thing *means.*
Let's start again.
In our modern consciousness, we tend to think first about what a thing is -- its physical components, its solid substance -- without thinking much about any sort of cosmic significance the object might have. I immediately recognize my cell phone as my cell phone -- it's plastic parts in a pretty green color that I picked because it was the "green" environmental phone and is also lime green. It's back lit, has a screen, has some programs in it. It has the function of being a device for communication, something I completely take for granted these days, as compared to when I was in college and calling home was still an expensive thing to the point that I bought phone cards that had cheaper rates after 9 p.m.
In a more mythic consciousness, at least the type depicted by Owen Barfield in Saving the Appearance, all of those features are far less relevant than what a thing means. Meaning is kind of a vague and bogus (V&B) word, so I'll try to describe a little better, again relying on the master. Barfield writes that a mythic consciousness doesn't think of metaphors the same way a modern consciousness does. When they talk about blood as life, or the stars guiding fate, they're not being poetical. Real blood isn't those cells wandering through your body passing oxygen around. Real blood is life force, is family, is connection, is all of those things that blood symbolizes in a modern consciousness. The symbol, in this context, is the real meaning -- not the physical liquid that shows up when I cut myself. (In a more mythic consciousness, I'd first identify my cellphone's most important quality: it is my bridge to those who are far away, the cord that allows me to connect beyond the local distances.)
Randy wrote some mythic interpretation of Neil Gaiman's Batman comics, collected in What Ever Happened to the Caped Crusader, which hinges on the idea of subjective vs. factual experience. It ties in very nicely to the ideas he and I have been batting about, some of which I touch on, very briefly, in my photo essay on Arthurian sites that will be up on Journey to the Sea on Saturday. He's also written and published some great essays on the idea of "myth beyond words" (in an issue to which I contributed) and wrote a great essay on mythos vs. logos, which I think is worth a read.
In the meantime, Randy brings you Batman!
In the last year or two, I have become fascinated with storytelling mediums that use more than just words to communicate narratives or recall them to mind. The great myths and legends of humanity have long been depicted in non-narrative works of art like marble statues, stained-glass windows, and totem poles. I have recently become fascinated with a much newer form of narrative art: the comic book.
Comic books combine images and words to tell stories. These could be stories of any kind, though stories about superheroes seem to have dominated the medium. My recent interest in comics got sparked late last year when I heard that Neil Gaiman was writing two new comic books about Batman. I knew Neil Gaiman as an award-winning fantasy and science-fiction novelist, but I had just discovered that he began his writing career with comic books. (His popular comic series The Sandman, seventy-five issues that ran from 1989-1996, has been reprinted in eleven volumes that are still in print.)
Gaiman was slated to write his two new issues about Batman's death, which certainly surprised me at first. But Batman would have to die, I suppose, and his death would be an important part of the overall Batman story. The two Gaiman comics came out in the spring, and I could not have been more impressed with them. The setting is Batman's funeral. The wide range of guests at the funeral includes Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, the Penguin, and even Superman. Batman's spirit is somehow there, as well, observing his own funeral.
Some of the guests come forward to pay their respects. Catwoman speaks first, recounting their meeting and describing how Batman died in her pet shop. Alfred speaks next, describing how young Bruce responded to his parents' murder and how that led to his death -- but I should quickly point out that Alfred's story is completely different than Catwoman's story! Seven other characters also tell different stories of Batman's untimely death throughout the two issues.
Gaiman's comics resonated with my interest in and study of myth on two counts:
First, storytellers throughout history have incorporated elements from other stories into their own or retold existing stories with alterations to produce new versions. Gaiman is telling a new story that obviously incorporates existing characters and events created by others. But Gaiman is also re-imagining some of these existing narrative elements. Alfred's story in particular is wickedly clever, in which Alred reveals that he was somehow the Joker. (I believe this story is original to Gaiman. But since I'm not familiar with all the existing Batman stories, please correct me if I'm wrong.)
Second, the approach to the world that produces myth and art often concerns itself with the subjective experiences of meaning and significance rather than with objective facts. By using a frame narrative to place the accounts of Batman's death into the mouths of characters in the story, Gaiman puts the emphasis on these subjective experiences. All nine stories discuss what Batman's death might mean or signify, and they all ring "true" in their own way -- even if they could not all be factually accurate.
You can find these two new issues at your local comic shop by asking for Batman #686 and Detective Comics #853. DC Comics last month released a hardcover book containing these two issues (along with three earlier Batman comics written by Gaiman), which is available at Amazon and other booksellers. I would highly recommend these two issues, even if, like me, you have had little previous exposure to comics.