Thursday, March 8, 2007

It's Alive! It's Alive!

Following up on last week's post, let us consider the mashup, in which different popculture concepts and characters--sometimes very different--are brought together to make something coherent and new. In a sense the mashup is a continuation of Modernism, although we can also argue that the current manifestation of it is Postmodern. (Ha, I said the "P" word and gave you hives). The expression of the mashup dynamic most people are probably familiar with is mashup music, a.k.a.  "bastard pop," but the concept of the mashup is more common than that, and even in the sleepy and oft-moribund world of librarianship the mashup is appearing, albeit as a mix of both content and technology. (All part of the loathesome "Library 2.0" movement, about which the less said, the better). The particular kind of mashup I'm interested in is the literary version of it: the crossover.

Now, I've written on crossovers before, and if you're interested in reading 3700+ words on the taxonomy and literary history of the concept of the crossover, here you go. (As for why I slighted Kim Newman in that got me. I was younger then, only 35, I didn't know what I was doing, and I can only offer apologies to him). The shorter version of that essay is that there are nine kinds of crossovers, in roughly chronological order:

  1. Synthesis of pre-existing legends (Greek Myths)

  2. Ongoing Fictional Universes (the novels of Honoré de Balzac & Jules Verne)

  3. The Series Crossover (Late 19th/early 20th century series characters appearing in each other's work)

  4. The Jam Session (when characters from different creators are brought together in a story by another creator)

  5. The Afterlife Crossover (John Kendrick Bangs' The Houseboat on the River Styx)

  6. Real People, Fictional Stories (Thomas Byrnes, Commissioner of the N.Y.P.D., appearing in almost a dozen different dime novel series and giving the protagonist orders in each dime novel)

  7. Foreign Crossovers (the vast number of crossovers appearing in the pulps published outside of America after 1908).

  8. The Ongoing Crossover (All-Star Comics #3 and every commercially viable vehicle which is a team-up).

  9. The All-Encompassing Crossover (Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton Universe, Kim Newman's work, Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).

Obviously the impulse toward mixing and matching other people's characters and concepts, and coming up with something distinctive, is as old as popular culture itself. Nonetheless, there's a feeling that the modern version, the All-Encompassing Crossover--which is to say, the mashup--is more common now than it used to be, and that the most recent versions of mashups, in things like Harvey Birdman and The Venture Brothers, are high points.

Not so. I mean, my wife and I love both shows, but--the history of the mashup does not begin at a low point and work its way up to Our Glorious Modern Selves. Mashups have always had high points--from my perspective, it's been composed of high points, with only minute variations of quality. Consider:

As David A. Brewer demonstrates in his The Afterlife of Character, 1726-1825, British readers in the eighteenth century habitually invented and published sequels for their favorite characters. This was after the Statute of Anne, which is generally seen as the first modern copyright law, but, as is usually the case with intellectual property laws, the law went one way and the sentiment (and publications) of the people went another. The result, as Brewer shows (disclaimer time: my Heroes and Monsters is cited in the book), was a vigorous outpouring of unauthorized (but popular) "further adventures of." The one that caught my eye was George Sackville Carey's Shakespeare's Jubilee, A Masque (1769), in which Falstaff is "charm-call'd from his quiet grave" to attend the 1769 Stratford Jubilee. Poor fat Jack is taunted by Oberon and Puck and kidnapped by the witches from Macbeth, but eventually allowed to march in the Jubilee progression alongside Caliban, Pistol, and the rest of Shakespeare's best characters.

In 1912 and 1915 Carolyn Wells published two stories: "The Adventure of the Mona Lisa" (The Century Magazine, Jan. 1912) and "The Adventure of the Clothes-Line" (The Century, May 1915). These stories  featured The International Society of Infallible Detectives, whose members solve the crimes of the theft of the "Mona Lisa" and the mystery of a woman seen hanging from a clothes-line. The members of the International Society? Sherlock Holmes; Jacques Futrelle's Professor Van Dusen, a.k.a. "The Thinking Machine;" E.W. Hornung's A.J. Raffles; Maurice LeBlanc’s Arsène Lupin; Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin; Emile Gaboriau's M. Lecoq; E.C. Bentley's Philip Trent; Anna Katherine Green's Ebenezer Gryce; Francis Lynde's Calvin "Scientific" Sprague; MacHarg & Balmer's Luther Trant; Arthur Reeve's Craig Kennedy; Gaston Leroux's Rouletabille; and M. Vidocq.

You may or may not be familiar with the singular Maurice Richardson, creator of Engelbrecht the Dwarf, the surrealist boxer. If not--and, trust me, you should be, since any writer who can generate encomiums from both Mike Moorcock and Alexander Cockburn is worth looking into--then, please, do yourself a favor and buy the Savoy Books edition of Richardson's masterpiece, The Exploits of Engelbrecht. You won't regret it. (It's even got illustrations and design by John Coulthart--what more do you want?). Richardson also wrote "The Unquiet Wedding" (Lilliput, Oct. 1948, reprinted in The Exploits of Engelbrecht), in which Dracula's Daughter and the Son of Frankenstein are to wed. Dialogue and walk-ons follow from Prof. Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes, Detective Val Fox (and his parrot Joey), Rin Tin Tin, Holmes & Watson, Raffles & Bunny, Bulldog Drummond & Phyllis Clavering, Count Fosco, Sir Perceval Glyde, Ellery Queen Sr. & Jr., Hercule Poirot & Arthur Hastings, Inspector French, Clubfoot, Grimsby Roylott, Lemmy Caution, Father Brown, Irma Vep, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and The Beetle.

Finally, there is the Mexican film industry during the 1950s and 1960s. This site has a good rundown of the gloriously gonzo plots of the films, and among them you'll find such gems as a comedian fighting a mad scientist who has revived the Mummy, the Wolfman, Frankenstein, and a vampire, and La Llorona, Samson, Don Quixote and Romeo & Juilet trying to prevent their haunted house from being converted into a radio station. Better still, there are the luchador films, in which, just like in the wrestling ring, any luchador can team-up with or fight anyone else, with the end result being a wonderful collage of crossovers over the course of decades.

Perhaps the ultimate in this--and I know for certain that Alan Moore would agree with me on this, if only he knew about it--is this:

The Justice League of Luchadors

It's the Justice League of Luchadors, from Mil Mascaras vs. the Aztec Mummy. Those are every major luchador hero from the past sixty years, in one awe-inspiring lineup. Mil Mascaras is the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Anno Dracula, and All-Star Comics #3 rolled into one. Mil Mascaras, I dub thee King of Mashups.

(But it's not available on Netflix yet, damn it).

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