Contemporary “Heroes”

This is a very eloquent rebuttal to our current obsession with antihero. It’s all too common to call jaded heroes more “real” but this writer brings up the important possibility that we are all just in a foul mood and our fictional characters are channeling it to the detriment of hopefulness and imaginative possibility.

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The new Superman is a “hero” for our times: dark, moody, and full of angst. The Internet is still awash with blog posts and movie reviews that detail the controversy behind the ending of this year’s new Superman movie, Man of Steel. Apparently, Superman defeats his enemy, the renegade Kryptonian General Zod (played by Michael Shannon this time around, and by Terence Stamp in 1980’s Superman II), by snapping his neck. Many longtime fans of the characters and franchise have stressed that Superman would not resort to murder in order to defeat his enemies, and that this treatment of him as a character, along with the movie’s overwhelming amount of visually-driven action sequences, have detracted from what makes him great in the comic books, television adaptations, various animated cartoons, and the film series starring Christopher Reeve.

This has caused me to look more closely at the most recent…

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MORE SUMMER READING ON FAITH AND THE FOUNDING

Hello all. I thought I would direct you to a delightful blog from the History Chair at my alma mater, Wheaton College. If anyone has interest in history, religion and/or both, I would strongly recommend his blog.

Faith and History

The Fourth of July has come and gone, but the long Fourth of July holiday  weekend is still in mid-swing, so I thought I would add one more title to my list of suggested summer reading on faith and the founding.  (If you missed it, see here.)

The book I have in mind is Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution, by Vanderbilt University’s James P. Byrd.  I just reviewed the book for Christianity Today online (see here), and I thought I would call it to your attention as well here, without going into the same details that I shared for CT.

Sacred Scripture

Boiled down to fundamental categories, historians undertake three basic tasks.  They describe, they explain, and they evaluate.  In other words, they ask the questions “what happened?”  “why did it happen?” and “was it good that it happened?”  Because description is so essential…

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Before and After: Mid-century Dresser

My wife’s new project is completed. Prepare to be amazed.

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Where I live, everyone wants a mid-century dresser topped with an old-timey typewriter and a pair of mini antlers underneath an antique cloche. (I just learned that word.) So antique stores in the city are keenly aware of what they have and what people will pay for such items — a lot. So I can get a little jealous of other bloggers when I read about the treasures they’ve purchased for pennies from their country junk shop (or more probably, junque shoppe).

But when I start to feel those pangs of envy, I just remember this:

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Craigslist. $30. It is possible! Even in the city!

We brought this home last summer and it has been hiding in the guest room, embarrassed by scratches and general dinginess. But now it looks like this:

Dresser Portrait

Standing taller and prouder than ever, and looking worth far more than $30.

Dresser After

There are TONS…

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Star Trek: The Sci Fi Conundrum

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I liked Star Trek: Into Darkness.  In fact, I enjoyed myself a great deal.  Sadly, such is not the case for many moviegoers.

Just like the rest of our American lives, our moviegoing world is polarized.  Most of us are seeing the latest Star Trek movie and coming away entertained.  A vocal minority is strongly angered by its many violations of sci-fi logic and its inattention to canon Star Trek elements and themes.  The feud tends to go down like so:  “The plot doesn’t make sense!  J.J. Abrams is eviscerating Rodenberry’s soul for profit!”  vs. “Shut up nerds.  Turn off your brains and enjoy a big dumb action movie.  That’s all it’s supposed to be and it’s good for what it is.”

Is there any room for some in-between?  Like maybe someone who thoroughly enjoyed the film on a visual and emotional level while acknowledging with a nod that the plot is a little weak and expected more from AAA talent?  I applaud the Trek team:  JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci for putting emotion and character squarely at the center of harrowing action sci-fi.  Star Trek 2 is a movie that, like many of Abrams and Lindelof’s collaborations, is a good time in the moment, but doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.  

Plots in sci-fi stories are always a pickle.  You want to introduce fantastical, cool gadgets and powers that let our heroes and villains achieve the impossible.  The problem is when you introduce too many of these things, getting characters into dire situations becomes a hopeless muddle of “well, couldn’t we just do this impossible thing?  No…we can’t because of this made-up obstacle.”  

The source material that Trek nerds love so much: the original Star Trek series and its superior successor The Next Generation–seriously, I can’t overstress this–was almost entirely made up of the crew positing incomprehensible sci-fi solutions to incomprehensible sci-fi problems.  Sure, they took pains to be consistent with their sci-fi logic, but dramatically speaking, this absolutely sucks.  It’s fine if you’re nerd enough to actually think about the fantasy logic.  It’s fine if you have a mediocre television show with mediocre actors and a lot of time to generate ad revenue.  It’s fine if you’ve spent enough hours in the show’s universe to understand everything they’re saying.  But it’s not fine if you want to watch an emotionally compelling, exciting fantasy film that comes packaged with a sense of adventure and peril–and all that in a 2 hour span.  

But the truth is that bad movie logic is still annoying for everyone.  Great effects, good acting, and emotional intensity are all a little less pleasing without a sensible sequence of events.  In fact, logic is all the more necessary when the direction and acting are good enough to get the audience to actually care about the characters who are in peril.  When someone you care about is in danger, you naturally start thinking of all the possible ways to get him out of it, and when you have so many fantastical plot devices flying around, a million plausible alternatives present themselves.

Yes, sci-fi is trouble.  But the polarity of “everything sucks” vs. “turn your brain off” have been navigated by nimble writers and thoughtful direction.  Here are a few ways previous sci-fi films and shows have dealt with the problem:

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1.  Less plot – The original Wrath of Khan had it right.  It was a straight revenge flick.  No shifty alliances, no military conspiracy, just a bad guy hell bent on killing a good guy because he hates him.  Good guy’s best friend sacrifices himself to save good guy.  Simplistic?  Maybe.  But it works, kids.  Struggle and sacrifice is all you need for good drama.  The most recent two Star Trek movies share a common problem:  the villain has weird motivations.  Each one has a tragic component to them, they retaliate against wrongs done them, but each one, in the middle of the film, accomplishes their vengeance, but then, inexplicably they try to destroy Kirk, Starfleet and even all of Earth if they can.  This completely negates all their previously held sense of justice.  Forty-five minutes into the film, they flip from vengeful to maniacal, as if it’s just the next phase of their plan.  Interestingly, The Wrath of Khan addresses just this problem.  Khan’s first mate asks why he wants to go after Kirk when they are now free.  The answer?  “He tasks me!”  Khan’s just a supercilious bastard.  His revenge trip has nothing to do with just desserts, it’s all about ego.  Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness could have benefited from little scenes like this to better develop the villain’s motivations instead of just supposing that a tragic past is enough to make anybody a monster.

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2.  Less sci-fi – This is the Blade Runner scenario in which you don’t focus on fantastical things when you don’t need to.  That film’s plot was anything but simple, but the sci-fi landscape certainly was.  Robots that look like people, flying cars and that’s all.  The rest is just set dressing.  Holding back on extraneous sci-fi information works to your movie’s advantage.  Star Trek 2 would’ve had fewer problems sans trans-warp beaming, super-blood, cold-fusion bombs and long-range people-missiles.  They’re all more trouble than they’re worth.

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3.  Make things look hard – This is the Star Wars scenario in which fantastical things seem to have unexplained limitations.  This comes through the “soft logic” of careful direction and a cultivated atmosphere.  Sure Stormtroopers are awful shots and everything works out for our heroes, but at least they seem scared enough to be constantly running away.  Nobody ever cuts through an entire squad single-handedly.  Battles are lengthy and dirty.  Sure, none of our heroes ever get waxed, but perilous situations seem to naturally suppress our heroes’ options.  Han Solo spends a good deal more time cowering behind walls than going Rambo.  Star Trek 2 could have learned from that.

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4.  Respect death – The ultimate limitation that all action films must accept is death.  Breaking the rule of death is almost always a poor decision.  I’ll concede that The Search for Spock ultimately reversed Wrath of Khan’s tragic ending, but at least the resurrection was put off for another film.  For several years, Spock was dead.  Wrath of Khan’s tragic climax can still stand alone as an epic finale.

Basically, you gotta have less of something.  Perhaps that’s just what a modern movie audience can’t abide.  More more more.  Whatever does more wins the day.  Whatever’s willing to cram in more action, more changes of scene, more characters and more ‘splosions is going to get the money.  Maybe that’s true, but I don’t see why a little more brains and directorial finesse couldn’t be employed to make the ‘splosions and space missiles make a bit more sense or at least appear to.  Good sci-fi always requires leaps of logic, but they should at least be little ones.

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More Good Reading: Fathers and Daughters by Alan Jacobs

For an intellectual feast, please read Alan Jacobs’s review of a new graphic novel by Mary and Bryan Talbot. Instead of reprinting the article as in my last section of “Good Reading” (which really should be retitled, “Good Reading from Alan Jacobs”) I’ve decided to simply link to the page and offer some of my own impressions. I also hope that any of you who have an interest would add yours in the comments below.

Jacobs performs a double task of reviewing the historical veracity of the Talbots’ work–which, according to Jacobs leaves more than a little to be desired–and asks the more important question, “what is a graphic novel?” First of all, he says, to call the graphic narrative a “novel” is a misnomer, but on the other hand, nobody has too good a handle on the contours of the graphic narrative to properly define it. He quotes Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel as “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it” and deems it good enough to apply to the Talbots’ book for the purposes of his review. What’s wrong with the Talbots’ treatment of James Joyce’s complicated relationship with his troubled daughter lies in a misapplied emphasis on little Lucia’s femininity and a subtle downplaying of her unstable mental state which eventually got her institutionalized. Joyce spurns Lucia’s desire to become a dancer and ultimately has her institutionalized, ostensibly due to her failure to live up to his ideal of a quiet, subservient woman. In fact, as Jacobs points out, Joyce had a wild confidence in his daughter’s potential and if he was disdainful of her desire to dance, it probably only saw it as beneath her powers.

Jacobs excludes no nuance from the graphic narrative as he gently buries Dotter as historically implausible and artfully misleading. He is attentive to the graphic subtleties of the work, how Lucia’s mental state is presented as docile and plaintive when all evidence suggests it was rather violent, and the beautiful rendering in sepia tones. He does not whitewash the relationship between father and daughter but refuses to be drawn into a tale of Joyce’s callousness and Lucia’s innocence. He concludes with Lucia’s utterly deranged reaction to her father’s death “That imbecile. What is he doing under the earth? When will he decide to leave? He’s watching you all the time.”

The content of the review should be a salutary reminder to a comics community seeking legitimacy for its work–rather than the place it currently holds as juvenile fiction that adult males happen to enjoy reading, and a sometimes interesting teaching aid for humanities professors–in the literary community, that the medium of “graphic novel” is not really so revolutionary as to escape real criticism. Much of the discussion and review surrounding comics that I’ve seen has been rather like the current debate surrounding video games: when the content of a game is deemed inappropriate or possible offensive–as in the case of the “No Russian” sequence of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2–the gaming community simply calls the accuser an out-of-touch doctrinaire unready and unwilling to consider new types of media as art. All too often, this is a ploy to escape chastisement from concerned communities and policymakers for graphic representations of violence or sexuality by appealing to an as yet undiscovered and suppressed form of artistry.

The comics community has a deep history with censorship and running afoul of public concerns for morality. Starting in the nineteen-thirties a small movement of psychiatrists, policymakers and concerned community leaders arose to limit and even ban comic books nationwide. One editorialist in Chicago put it bluntly:

“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child’s natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic’ magazine.” (Editorial by Sterling North, Chicago Daily News, 8 May 1940, quoted by Coville, A.N.)

Fredric Wertham lent psychological credence to the view that comics were poisoning youth. In Seduction of the Innocent he laid out a case that comics were, by nature, harmful to the young mind. In 1954, comics publishers responded by creating the Comics Code Authority, which regulated the objectionable content of their books internally rather than waiting for Federal censors to do the job. This drove artists underground.

If you didn’t want to be writing stories about Batman going on a SCUBA trip and contracting the bends or Lois Lane worried sick over whether Superman still loved her, or Wonder Woman in the less-than-objectionable scenarios of fighting evil gorillas, icebergs and volcanoes then you’d publish your own work underground. The 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential interviews the prolific artists who flourished in this period of censorship: Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, R. Crumb, and Harvey Pekar. All of these men produced work that was self-consciously counter-cultural and deliberately profane, flipping the bird at the world that rejected them.

Today, however, the pendulum has swung rather back the other direction. The leaders of the major comics imprints, DC and Marvel, have incorporated many of the more profane elements, if little of the artistry, of these underground comics artists into their mainstream superhero fantasies. DC regularly offs civilians and superheroes alike, and Marvel is just behind. I know this because I work at a local comic store and find it incredibly difficult to recommend comic books to customers under 17. We have even put up a small “kids” section in the middle of the store. It is a wonder that the majority of the rest of the store is so decidedly not kid-friendly.

Outside of the mainstream, the celebration of radicalism and the picaresque has achieved stratospheric levels. Independent comics cannot seem to go one year without debuting some sort of intentionally blasphemous treatment of the life of Jesus Christ or excoriating the imagery of traditional American Protestant Christianity. The latest project from legendary scribe Alan Moore is a compendium of popular writers and artists supporting the “Occupy” movement, an adoring and earnest tribute to New Left principles. I tried to imagine what a comic book about female pro-life activists might look like, and realized I hadn’t the resources to imagine anything like this any more than one could imagine a pornographic film promoting the virtues of modesty. The independent comics market, though smaller and less profitable, is the engine of ideas and tone co-opted by the mainstream, and it has been shaped by its history of alliance with New Left counterculture. This is why the “darker” heroes like Batman and Wolverine are currently the most popular. Anti-heroism is the order of the day.

This also explains why nobody knows how to treat Superman. The most Christ-like and messianic of comic characters, Superman has been a hollow shell in an age enamored by “flawed” characters. Any image of the Good–including Truth, Justice and the American Way–falls under suspicion for its utopianism, narrow thinking, and exclusivity. All heroes must fall from grace, because to claim authority, even righteous authority, is to corrupt oneself. We shall see if the newest movie, Man of Steel manages to escape the stigma comics have applied to moral purity.

Which brings me back around to Jacobs’s review of the Talbots’ beautifully wrong Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes. What Jacobs has unwittingly done is subject a work to a kind of searching criticism that the tender comics medium is as yet unwilling to receive. I warn Jacobs to expect some backlash, providing any comics fans (other than myself) read Books & Culture. The unfortunate thing about a history of censorship is not that it sets limits to artistic freedom. It is that censorship creates another kind of sheltered bubble where there are no limits; where everything is permissible except canon, code, and authority. Historical evidence and true philosophy are also excluded from this new orthodoxy. Mary Talbot’s experience in “Critical Discourse Analysis” makes her a perfect fit for the ever recalcitrant comics community. To depict Joyce’s complicated relationship with his daughter even-handedly would be to accept language as containing more or less truth value rather than more or less power. Language in comics is a continuum between the oppressive and the libertine. A loving father is a nigh impossible image to render on the comics page, and indeed I do not know where or when it has been done convincingly. Youthfulness, anti-authority, generational warfare, these are the themes that comics cherish because they have been been baked into the life histories of the fathers of the modern comics industry.

As a young man with a comics habit I rather wish that Jacobs had continued in his review to ask what the “graphic novel” is. From what I have seen, it is a medium of sequential art that has something juvenile about it. There is nothing particularly wrong with this. Rebellion is a nearly universal emotion at a certain time of life. The trouble is that the supposed maturation of the comics medium has not graduated from this stage of pre-adolescence. Instead, it largely amounts to a promotion of juvenile themes. There are exceptions to be sure, but they are few and not influential. To truly grow up, comics would need to change its core commitments to anti-authority, violence, and the aesthetics of the profane. Until such a sea change occurs (and it is not on the horizon) comics will remain unsubtle, unsophisticated, and unwilling to render father and daughter as anything other than Lucia and her lamentable encounter with patriarchy.

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You Can Download the Best Comic of The Year for Free

I decided not to get flowery with the title, because I want to get straight to the point. Imagine [insert favorite television show here] decided to screw the networks and just let you stream their show for however much money you wanted to put down, yes even $0. Although, I realize you already just do that anyway, imagine you didn’t have to feel that tiny little tinge of guilt when you did it. Feels pretty great, right?

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Now take that feeling over to http://www.panelsyndicate.com and indulge that fantasy. Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin are distributing their own comic digitally on their own website. It’s called The Private Eye, and it’s awesome. It’s the Radiohead “In Rainbows” experiment of “pay what you want” applied to a comic book. Actually, now that I think about it, In Rainbows might be the best soundtrack for this book. Brian K. who? Marcos what? I’ll try to put this into television parlance. Imagine Aaron Sorkin wrote a TV show and got Spike Jonze to direct it.

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It’s sort of like that. Vaughan wrote season 5 of LOST and a few of the best recognized comics of the last decade: Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Pride of Baghdad, and the ongoing, acclaimed Saga.

Marcos Martin is one of my very favorite artists. He draws very slender, stylized figures that emphasize motion and the surreal. He’s one of the very few artists that I will (and, I think I have) read anything he draws.

What is this comic, you ask? And why should I read it, let alone any comic? Well, first you can read it for FREE, but I’ve already covered that, so let me fill you in on the rest. The Private Eye is a perfect blend of gonzo science fiction and standard, straightforward detective story. The story is consciously reminiscent of Chinatown and Miller’s Crossing. Those are classic stories that are never diminished for being retold. Oh, and you can also read it en espanol.

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The hook, and the book’s brilliance, is that it all takes place in a near-future where the internet no longer exists. Due to some unnamed disaster, it got shut down permanently. All the millennials are in their 80s, and they’re totally senile, because they don’t know how to live without gchat and WiFi access. That would be hilarious in itself, but Vaughan goes further. The internet may not exist anymore, but it’s completely changed how we socialize. People act out their online personas in real life. At a certain age, it’s customary to change your name and get a holographic “mask” that projects your desired avatar over your face. It’s live-action-facebook, and it makes uncovering people’s real identities and motives a good deal more complicated than in the old days.

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Moreover, Martin’s visuals give the premise a deeper tone than I would have expected from the the standard trashed, dirty future we’ve come to expect from Blade Runner and Minority Report. The city sidewalks look more like a Dia De Los Muertos or a Mardis Gras parade–as if the human race, sifted through the internet, has come back around to a state of individualized totemism; as if one’s identity is only validated by summoning some iconic, preternatural persona. Me gusta.

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Naturally, it’s that last bit that entices me the most. I love a strong, clever premise that has something to say about the way we live now. Currently, the plot has been steaming forward too fast for Vaughan to philosophize too much, but that’s all to the good. This is Chinatown in a crazy future. Download it and enjoy being hooked on something you don’t have to feel guilty for downloading for free–but do consider tipping a couple of bucks to this excellent creative team and ensure this series has a long life ahead of it. I hope this experiment proves that, when people know their cash is going to the creators and not Comcast, they might actually prefer to pay rather than pirate.

 

 

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Is Love now considered as a weakness?

I was pleased and encouraged by this insightful little post by a recent follower of mine. I am working on the conspicuous lack of the subject of love in music (the one place where it has historically taken up popular residence) and what that might mean. This profound little note is a fantastic prelude. Keep blogging, Katerina. I’ll be reading.

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This morning I was reading letters to me by my ex- boyfriend and feel a bit affected by them, enough to want to write about it, though I’m sure my writing will be influenced by all the writing that I have read on love, in the past. I don’t know why I kept his letters, when I did away with everything else that belonged to him.

Anyways I don’t think people are able to write about love in the same way like olden times… whether that’s due to our modernization, because the world has become so materialist or because sex is easily available, I don’t know. 😉

I doubt people understand what true love is nowadays.

The other day I was talking to my best friend and she told me, this guy she likes and was dating for a week wants to have sex with her. She is in two…

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