Myth Machine: TFT Review of ‘Wichman Cometh’ by Ben Pease
Deep within John Ford’s fictional one-horse town of Shinbone, a newspaperman delivers a most memorable line: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.“ The newspaperman in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” Ford’s 1962 western, rips up his reportorial notes very deliberately and hurdles them into a wood-burning stove. He sets the moveable type of Shinbone’s printing press and at that moment, a real man’s mythic story is born. In much the same way, I imagine the editors of Monk Books, a young, small press, set their type and delivered Wichman Cometh: Selections from a Blockbuster in Verse, a gorgeous collection of epic verse and illustrations by poet and artist, Ben Pease.
Some scholars claim Hercules was a real man, whose story became a legend. Before I go any further, I must hereby swear on a bible that Ben Pease’s hero, the Wichman, is real. I know the Wichman is real because I had the fortune of meeting the Wichman at a party in Manhattan, New York, NY. A facebook photo probably proves this. I met the Wichman because, sometimes, the sophisticated New York metropolis doubles as a one-horse town. At the time, I didn’t realize the Wichman would be mythologized in a collection of poems. Else, I would have asked more questions of a seemingly ordinary man.
At face value, Pease follows the Herculean form, blockbuster-style, sculpting the real-life Wichman with mythic clay. The Wichman saga pays tribute to both the ancient tradition and the recent tradition of American genre storytelling. Pease tells a myth the way myths have always been told: The plot of Wichman Cometh is thick. The hero must reckon with a tempting femme fatale and a mysterious tuxedo-wearing soothsayer. The hero’s enemy delivers his poison via arrow. The Wichman is bound and gagged. The ancient chorus chimes in to untangle any complications. The Wichman overcomes his trials to benefit all mankind. Et cetera. Pease knowingly uses all the trappings, artfully and humorously. His true talent is his invention beyond the heroic tropes.
To help illustrate, let’s dissect The Wichman saga using a few of the 17 monomythic stages Joseph Campbell developed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell established the idea of the monomyth as a basic, universal narrative skeleton of the hero’s journey. Campbell applied this structure to both ancient and modern cultural narratives, including all the big cheeses, e.g. Buddha, Moses, Christ, and Prometheus. And George Lucas named the monomyth as a major influence in his Star Wars series.
Monomythic stage example: The call to adventure/refusal of the call: The Wichman is made up of equal parts James Bond, Achilles, and an over-confident stoner, resting on his stoner laurels. Pease invents a reluctant and apathetic demihero. At first, the Wichman is unable to realize his own heroic image. Most of the Wichman’s hurdles are internal and metaphysical. In Pease’s creation, the hero is relatable. I mean, who hasn’t been faced with perilous adventure and wished for this instead:
In Wichman Cometh, Pease introduces the characters of “Sage Editors,” who create this image of the mythic man (well before The Wichman actually demonstrates anything hero-like in the story). These mythmakers, “understood / The Wichman himself / was mythologically / inadequate as is.” The Wichman is imperfect. Pease’s hero has one foot in elevated, Greco-Roman fantasy and one foot in pure, disappointing realism. The Sage Editors proclaim him as a hero but The Wichman questions:
So much of Wichman Cometh is about realizing mythic potential. To what degree can a person become extraordinary if he is told he is extraordinary? In Wichman Cometh, the myth makes the man, but only if he is willing to embark on the quest.
Monomythic stage example: Supernatural Aid / Talisman: the Wichman finds the following, listing the members of one of the most heroic professions in an adolescent’s eyes:
I hate to call the idealization of astronauts adolescent, but I find it easy to imagine a pre-pubescent, unrealized hero begging his parents to send him to astronaut camp. The lunar landing is the ultimate quest realized by mankind. Bearing this list of the greats before him in his memory, the Wichman decides to enter the so-called Belly of the Whale.
Monomythic stage: Woman as temptress: the Wichman’s temptress is the hot girl downstairs in his apartment building in the modern story, named after a nymph in the Greek tradition. She is:
Pease is a good storyteller. He practices the art of suspense and spectacle. The Wichman gets himself into jams from which he can never unjam himself, or so it seems. You can almost hear the stings play discordantly before the turn of each page. If Pease were to rewrite Emily Dickinson’s line, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant, “ he would advise us to “Tell some of the truth and tell it with Spectacle.”
Monomythic stage example: Apotheosis: the hero achieves a divine state, where, in Campbell’s words, it dawns on the hero: “what [the hero], and all things, really are is the Everlasting, dwell in the groves of the wish fulfilling trees, drink the brew of immortality, and listen everywhere to the unheard music of eternal concord.” This stage, among others in Wichman Cometh, are televised:
If one ticks off the monomythic requirements in a list, one could say Pease followed the rules. But Pease doesn’t introduce each of the Wichman’s stages procedurally. Throughout Wichman Cometh, abstract, black and white images work in tandem with the verse. Pease reduces each image (e.g. the figure if a man) to its white points of light. As Pease boils down the literary image of the hero, he boils down the visual image as well, and the effect is captivating.
Pease straddles more than fantasy and realism. He braids the ancient and modern, the genre blockbuster and metaphysical contemplation, and art and prose and enjambed verse. Make no mistake, however: this is not crossover stuff. Pease did not dilute his artistry down to vapid pop. His concept is rich and his imagery is groundbreaking, smart. All storytelling, to some degree, is the output of the undying myth engine. John Ford’s newspaperman runs that engine. Homer runs that engine. Twain oils that engine late into the night. As writers, we might borrow and revise archetypes from the myth engine, especially if we are working within genre. Pease’s Wichman cometh straight from the humming myth machine itself.
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