Looking back over my reading in 2012, I find that what I remember most vividly, and think about most often, is the 28 issues of Warren Ellis’s comic series Planetary. It’s a rip-roarer of a story, but also a really, really smart reflection on the whole history of comics and of related mythopoeic characters: Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, etc.
What do I mean by “mythopoeic character”? Enter W. H. Auden, stage left:
All characters who are products of the mythopoeic imagination are instantaneously recognizable by the fact that their existence is not defined by their social and historical context; transfer them to another society or another age and their characters and behavior will remain unchanged. In consequence, once they have been created, they cease to be their author’s characters and become the reader’s; he can continue their story for himself.
Anna Karenina is not such a character for the reader cannot imagine her apart from the particular milieu in which Tolstoi places her or the particular history of her life which he records; Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is: every reader, according to his fancy, can imagine adventures for him which Conan Doyle forgot, as it were, to tell us.
Tolstoi was a very great novelist, Conan Doyle a very minor one, yet it is the minor not the major writer who possesses the mythopoeic gift. The mythopoeic imagination is only accidentally related, it would seem, to the talent for literary expression; in Cervantes’ Don Quixote they are found together, in Rider Haggard’s She literary talent is largely absent. Indeed, few of the writers whom we call great have created mythical characters. In Shakespeare’s plays we find five, Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, Falstaff and Hamlet, and Hamlet is a myth for actors only.
Planetary is a brilliant exploration of how these characters, who tend to populate the best and most famous comic books, work on the reader’s mind — and how they alter subtly, while remaining themselves, when placed in different fictional worlds. But more than that, it’s just a fantastic read.
More memorable reads of 2012 in future posts….