Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Superman Link

I haven't been combing the internet for Superman material much lately. Still, every once in a while something comes across the comb, so to speak.

Like this essay, by Stephen Lovely at Portalist.

Superman struggles with as many internal motivations and priorities as any other superhero, or any other person. He is an orphan, an immigrant, and an alien. He is feared and loved. He is in a love triangle with two women (Lois Lane and Lana Lang); he is in another love triangle with himself (Lois Lane, Superman, and Clark Kent).

These aren’t simple issues, and they can’t be easily resolved despite Superman’s ultimate morality. Superman always strives to do ‘the right thing’, but the questions he faces in each story ought to be tough enough to match his intellect and his drive for goodness. With the right conflict, a Superman story is more than a superhero story, and Superman’s true value shines through.

It's a response to the occasional statement that Superman is boring, and I tend to agree with Lovely's argument, even if I would put it in a different way. Anyway, good stuff that I might revisit soon.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Miracle Monday

I missed Miracle Monday, didn't I? Oh, well. I'll blame it on my son's tonsilectomy happening that day, my ghostwriting gig, my editing work, proofreading, and having  to index my Superman book. A while back I actually did write a post about Miracle Monday, so might as well  post it belatedly.

For whatever reason, nobody published novelizations of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. However, Elliott S. Maggin wrote a couple of novels around the same timeframe, published by Warner Books, that were photographically, if not narratively, tied in with the movies. By that I mean that there are pictures of Reeve on the cover and a section of photos from Superman II in the middle.

The plot is fairly straightforward: A demon named C.W. Saturn is tasked with taking Superman's soul. He tries to get it--and it must be done in a fair manner, i.e., Superman has to agree or commit some heinous sin--by wearing down the hero to the point that Superman would commit murder just to make things stop. So Saturn takes over the body of a young woman (who just so happens to be a time traveler from the future who's trying to figure out exactly what happened on Miracle Monday) and causes all sorts of havoc all around the world, starting with revealing Superman's secret identity. Superman's got to stop him, which is both an act of will and a superheroic feat. He does stop Saturn, of course, by not giving in to exhaustion and despair.

It's a pretty good little novel. Maggin knows Superman better than just about everybody, and it's on display. Including Jimmy Olsen and Perry White seems almost perfunctory, but in a story about Superman's secret identity being exposed, it's also obligatory. I did like the conversation between Lois and Clark after she finds out.

Miracle Monday is an artifact of its time--back when Clark Kent was a television news anchor (which just doesn't seem to work for him, no matter the rationale behind it).

The time travel works as a framing device, with the travelers going back in time to find out why people started celebrating Miracle Monday in the first place. It's a holiday in which everybody is just happy to be alive, with Superman as it's patron saint. So as we learn about the holiday, the fact that everybody's memory of the events leading up to it will be erased becomes clear. As if it wasn't already obvious when Saturn exposes Superman's secret identity.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

French Sources of Mystery

One reason I haven't been posting much lately is that I've been combing through a bunch of old French books. Particularly, the Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses to which Borges refers in "Fauna of Mirrors."

Let's review: The "Fauna of Mirrors" story opens as follows:

In one of the volumes of the Lettres edifiantes et curieuses that appeared in Paris during the first half of the eighteenth century, Father Fontecchio of the Society of Jesus planned a study of the superstitions and misinformation of the common people of Canton; in the preliminary outline he noted that the Fish was a shifting and shining creature that nobody had ever caught but that manysaid they had glimpsed in the depths of mirrors. Father Fontecchio died in 1736, and the work begun by his pen remained unfinished; some 150 years later Herbert Allen Giles took up the interrupted task. According to Giles, belief in the Fish is part of a larger myth that goes back to the legendary times of the Yellow Emperor.

I've gone through most of Giles's work (already mentioned here) and now I've gone through all but one volume of the Lettres. In the thirty-some I've gotten access to, there is no mention of a Father Fontecchio, or of fish being in mirrors and attacking our world.

I say all but one volume: I haven't been able to get number 31 yet.

Keep in mind a few things. First, my French is pretty rusty. Second, this is eighteenth-century French. Still, I think I've been pretty thorough. All the volumes of the Lettres are available on-line in searchable formats. I used the same terms for each volume search: miroir, Fontecchio, Zallinger, poisson, superstition.

I used to be certain that Fontecchio was a real guy, though I can't recall why and have no source for that. Zallinger is equally obscure. Let's see, there's reference to Zallinger (as Zallinger, P.) on the University of Pittsburgh's Borges Center site, but nothing on Fontecchio. They publish a journal devoted to Borges.

So what's the next step? I dunno.  

Friday, April 28, 2017


Here's another Matrix video that popped up yesterday. This time, on the craft that went into its production and post-production.

Thursday, April 27, 2017


I remember going to see The Matrix when it came out in 1999. One of the best parts of that was going in with no expectations. Everything was a surprise. A couple of web series (A History of Violence and Really that Good?) revisited The Matrix this month, and they're worth checking out.

Tom Briehan's essays on action films in A History of Violence:

More than any movie before or since, The Matrix made Keanu Reeves part of the action-star pantheon. Reeves, who’d been enough of a cowboy to do stunt work in Point Break and Speed, took things to a new level, setting new standards in Hollywood action-star diligence. And more importantly, he didn’t just give an athletic performance; he meant it. Reeves’ kung-fu poses never looked goofy; he sold them through commitment and sincerity. And the dazed sweetness that had always been his movie-star calling card also showed through. Reeves always used to get shit for being a terrible actor, but he sold bewilderment like nobody else. When he muttered “whoa” at the sight of Morpheus taking to the air, he was speaking for the audience. And you won’t find too many iconic badass moments more iconic than the one in the subway station, when he decides not to run from Agent Smith and turns to fight him instead.

Moviebob's in-depth look at some of the most popular films in Really that Good?:

Moviebob also digs into the Matrix sequels a bit, which is worthwhile. If you like that video, check out the Really that Good? entry on Ghostbusters, too.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mystery: Norman Thomas di Giovanni

I don't have a lot of time to dig into the mystery--which is what I have been calling the origin and authenticity of the story called, variously, "The Fauna of Mirrors," "Animals in the Mirror," and "Animales del Mirro" by Jorge Luis Borges...and maybe Margarita Guerrero. Less than an hour per week, maybe. Not much time, really.

So today I wanted to devote my few minutes to Norman Thomas di Giovanni. I found this. di Giovanni worked directly with Borges on translations of Borges's work into English. As things progressed, after Borges passed away, di Giovanni found himself being deprived of the results of that work. Publishers and Borges's widow had begun releasing newly translated versions of Borges's Spanish editions, without di Giovanni's contributions at all. He writes:

Behind my back, I was being ushered out of the door (if such a mixed metaphor is permissable) and at the same time was being airbrushed out of history, out of Borges's existence. All of my volumes of his work - work to which he contributed and gave a unique voice - were deliberately allowed to go out of print. No publisher, no editor, no agent, no executor of any estate ever wrote to me to explain any of this. New translations appeared. Viking-Penguin had bought up E.P. Dutton, and unilaterally, without a single word to me, they nullified my contracts, an act which experts in the law have told me was illegal. So ruthless was Viking that they even commissioned a new edition of Borges's poems, stealing from my edition, without permission, without payment, a considerable body of my work.

This is all very depressing.

I learned all this when I was looking up di Giovanni with the hopes of contacting him about the mystery. He passed away in February of 2017.

Norman Thomas di Giovanni will be remembered by friends in Buenos Aires for his wit and for his brash manner in all that he set out to do. He must also be remembered for his brilliant literary training, his high quality as a translator and his capacity to move from his hard-knocks managerial style to his kindness as a friend to all of his friends and for his often excessive generosity. Di Giovanni wanted to help the whole world. He was a sponge for attention and affection from all those he befriended or was close to at any one time.
However, Di Giovanni would probably want to be remembered simply as the best translator that Jorge Luis Borges ever had.

Friday, April 14, 2017


I've been thinking about American National Character a lot lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about stories we tell about large-scale conflict. This sort of thing has been on my mind for a while now, ever since I was teaching a myth course when the movie Troy came out. Some students in this myth class liked the film, particularly the parts in which Achilles talks about how the Greeks weren't portrayed in the best light. Their sympathies lay with Hector and Troy.

Now, I think lots of people today have the same sympathy. This is interesting because the Greeks of Homer's time probably didn't share it.

Back to stories of large-scale conflict. I'm referring to alien invasions and the like. Independence Day, Star Wars, Avengers, all that. Stories of underdogs. Overwhelming odds being beaten by a small group of heroes.

Here's where you've got to follow me: America's fascination for underdog stories stems from the perception of the country's origin as the result of the actions of just such a team of underdogs, often referred to as The Founding Fathers.

Take this premise through time, and we see that our most popular stories have at their core the same themes already present in our myth of national origin. So of course people see in Star Wars a version of US-England conflict--never mind its references to Vietnam.

Here's where history becomes important. The US had no chance to defeat England, or rather would have had no chance if England hadn't been embroiled across the globe in conflicts with France and Spain. England didn't have the opportunity to employ its full military might to stop the colonial uprising. Yes, France gave aid to the colonial rebellion, but myth has downplayed that. I remember seeing that movie The Patriot when it came out, with Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. There's maybe one French guy in it (or more; honestly, I don't remember much about that movie).

Yet our national myth has erased that very detail of history, that England had lots of things going on. The Empire in Star Wars didn't also have to battle The Other Empire while facing the Rebellion. Or the Other Other Empire. I haven't seen the Independence Day sequel, so maybe that one's about the aliens conquering earth because they finally defeated the competing conquistadors from the Crab Nebula. Yeah, my astronomy knowledge is pretty thin.

There's a book to be written about this topic, I think. Drawing mostly on movies as the texts of the myth, but also on children's school books on history,

These movies have one thing in common: once something small about the enemy is destroyed, the whole Empire falls. More or less. I mean, Iron Man blows up that thing in the space hole in Avengers and the whole alien army falls down dead. Luke shoots the exhaust vent in the Death Star and the movie's done (yeah yeah yeah sequels and stuff, but even at the end of Jedi they win by the same sort of move, only with Lando and Nien Nunb and Wedge taking the shots; and sure, the expanded universe stuff expanded the defeat of the Empire, but still...). Even the movie of Starship Troopers does pretty much this same thing. Essentially, if you want to defeat an apparently unstoppable enemy empire or civilization, all you've got to do is find the weak spot.

So, what was the British Empire's weak spot? I mean, we all realize that it's not very realistic for the plucky underdogs to really beat the evil empire by finding their way inside to learn about the exhaust port vulnerability, or uploading a computer virus to the mother ship, or teaching Hugh about individuality, or tossing the ring into the cracks of doom. And do we consider it more realistic when Jon Snow's rag taggers are saved only by the arrival of Little Finger and a new army? How about how Katniss and her buddies finally overthrew Panem? Does that one fit? (haven't seen those movies, and though I read the books I don't really remember how they won--did they win? they must have won, right?)

I've sort of lost my train of thought. Let's recap: as Americans, we're predisposed to like stories about the triumph of underdogs because our national myth presents our origins in those terms. This elides several key factors of actual history that are ignored by reimaginings of those myths, such as hugely popular movies. The British Empire's weak spot wasn't an exhaust port or vulnerability to infiltration. It was that it had too many enemies.

What movies complicate this reading of myth and history? Probably every movie about actual wars fought in the twentieth century, especially the two world wars. I don't really know.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

All We Fiddlers

From Edgar Lee Masters, in the Spoon River Anthology poem "Blind Jack." This is the storytellers' heaven:

There's a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The plot thinnens

So there's this weird thing with the name of the writer who first introduced the Mirror Fish to the western world. di Giovanni uses Fontecchio. Hurley uses Zallinger. So I dug up a pdf of the Spanish publication of Book of Imaginary Beings. El Libros de los Seres Imaginarios. "Animales de los Espejos" is the title of the chapter in question. The original text uses the name Zallinger. So where did Fontecchio come from?

Both Zallinger and Fontecchio were part of the La Compañía de Jesús, which is...okay, I'm just going to admit that I don't know Spanish. Anyway, La Compañía de Jesús, is Society of Jesus in English.

Updates as they arise.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Quote: The Einstein Intersection

I've been reading Samuel R. Delany's The Einstein Intersection, and I'm really enjoying it. He does things with words that I didn't think were possible. It reminds me a little of Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. But different. Also Gene Wolfe stories,. particularly the Book of the New Sun novels.

Here's something interesting, starting on page 20 of the 1992 printing:

"Let's talk about mythology, Lobey. Or let's you listen. We've had quite a time assuming the rationale of this world. The irrational presents just as much of a problem. You remember the legend of the Beatles? You remember the Beatle Ringo left his Maureen love even through she treated him tender. He was the one Beatle who did not sing, so the earliest forms of the legend go. After a hard day's night he and the rest of the Beatles were torn apart by screaming girls, and he and the other Beatles returned, finally at one, with the great rock and the great roll." I put my head in La Dire's lap. She went on. "Well, that myth is a version of a much older story that is not so well known. There are no 45's or 33's from the time of this older story. there are only a few written versions, and reading is rapidly losing its interest for the young. In the older story Ringo was called Orpheus. He too was torn apart by screaming girls. But the details are different. He lost his love--in this version Eurydice--and she went straight to the great rock and the great roll, where Orpheus had to go to get her back. He went singing, for in this version Orpheus was the greatest singer, instead of the silent one. In myths things always turn into their opposites as one version supersedes the next."


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Lois Lane: Fallout

Anybody read these novels about Lois Lane by Gwenda Bond? I've gotten through the first one, and I liked it quite a bit, despite being about as far from the target market as you can be.

Fallout starts with Lois, sixteen years old, arriving for her first day of school in Metropolis. Since her father's a general, she's moved around a lot up to this point. She feels a lot of pressure in this new situation since she wants to fit in, but she can't help being herself--someone who does her thing regardless of consequences because her thing is what she believes is right. Now that's an awkward sentence, but being sixteen is an awkward time.

Lois gets into trouble almost immediately upon entering her new school. She finds someone who needs help and helps her, thereby putting herself and a few others in all sorts of danger. This book had the odd effect of making me worried about the characters on every page, even when that page lacked impending danger. Sure, the stakes were high in the plot, but that almost wasn't the point. The point, I guess, is that Lois is figuring out how to become the character we all know and love, the kind of woman whom gods would fall in love with.

One of the reasons I picked up this book is because of the Mark Waid/Leinil Yu version in Brithright. See, one of the challenges of Superman is for a writer to convince us that Superman and Lois Lane would fall in love. Perhaps the biggest flaw in All-Star Superman is the way Grant Morrison dodged this question. Why Lois? Well, according to Morrison, Superman just can't help it. Not a lot of substance there. Waid, on the other hand, shows us a Lois whose personality dominates the panel, the page, the whole twelve issue series. Her words and demeanor elicit a "Wow" from Clark Kent the first time he sees her.

Gwenda Bond's Lois Lane is everything you'd want her to be.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mystery Plot thickening

Back go Borges and the mirror fish. Well, not exactly the mirror fish, but on a related note...

Page 134 of the Hurley translation of Imaginary Beings contains the following:

The Ink Monkey
This animal is common in the northern regions and is about four or five inches long; it is endowed with an unusual instinct; its eyes are like carnelian stones, and its hair is jet black, sleek and flexible, as soft as a pillow. It is very fond of eating thick China ink, and whenever people write, it sits with folded hands and crossed legs, waiting till the writing is finished, when it drinks up the remainder of the ink; which done, it squats down as before, and does not frisk about unnecessarily. 

This entry is attributed to Wang Tai-hai in 1791. In the accompanying end note, Hurley refers us to a book called The Chinaman Abroad: An Account of the Malayan Archipelago, particularly of Java, written by Ong-Tae-Hae and translated by W.H. Medhurst in 1850.

That book exists, and can be accessed here. On pages 46-47 we find this:

The Ink Monkey

(46) Is common in the northern regions and is about four of five inches long; it is endowed with an unusual instinct; its (47) eyes are like carnelian stones, and its hair is jet black, sleek and flexible, as soft as a pillow. It is very fond of eating thick Chinese ink, and whenever people write, it sits with folded hands and crossed legs, waiting till the writing is finished, when it drinks up the remainder of the kink; which done, it squats down as before; and does not frisk about unnecessarily. Ong-te-hoe used to keep one at the head of his ink-stone, or in the middle of his seal-box.

The author hedges his accuracy a bit when, in his preface, he writes, "Although far from being intelligent, I dare not refuse carefully to record the things which I have seen and heard, together with some references to the country and its inhabitants, in shirt every individual word and action worthy of being noted down; thus publishing the whole, in order to render some small assistance toward correcting men's minds, and sustaining right principles in the world!" 

Here's the other translation of the story, by di Giovanni:

The Monkey of the Inkpot
This animal, common in the north, is four of five inches long; its eyes are scarlet and its fur is jet black, silky, and soft as a pillow. It is marked by a curious instinct--the taste for India ink. When a person sits down to write, the monkey squats cross-legged near by with one forepaw folded over the other, waiting until the task is over. Then it drinks what is left of the ink, and afterwards sits back on its haunches, quiet and satisfied. 

Same attribution.

In an essay on Borges titled "Repetition, Museums, Libraries," Alicia Borinsky opens with Norman Thomas Di Giovanni's translation of the Ink Monkey story. Then uses that image, of the satisfied monkey, to get to this point: "The position of the monkey regarding the writer is the double nature of authorship; no text is ever complete and finished; the author are always two, one who writes the texts and another one--at least--who profits from its excess."

I bring up these things precisely because it's important to see that at least some of Borges's sources in The Book of Imaginary Beings are genuine. Interestingly, Borinsky lets us know that the Wang Thai Hai's ontological status is irrelevant. It's pretty much a straight translation, although the entry in the original does refer to the author, Ong-te-hoe, in the third person.

(a couple of translation notes: Giovanni uses "scarlet" for the eyes, but the Spanish uses "cornalinas," so I assume Hunley's is more strictly accurate; carnelian stones don't exactly look red to me; also, Giovanni's use of India ink isn't in the Spanish: "la tinta china")

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Here's an interesting perspective on the recent DC films, especially on how Superman operates as "the other." This article, by Dennis R. Upkins, is making me rethink the DCEU. For instance:

The arrival of both Superman and Obama changed the power landscape of America, of the entire planet. White humans were irate because in both cases, Obama/Superman threatened the existing power structures and now whites were getting a taste of the fear PoCs have had to endure daily for centuries. And even though both men fought tirelessly for truth, justice, and the American way, they were met with outright bigotry. The ones leading the hate-mongering were Lex Luthor and Donald Trump.

The Superman/Obama parallels were noted a while back. I haven't seen it put this way before. It's worth reading in full, on The Nerds of Color.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Irish Folklore: Fairy Coin

I had this post all ready to go the week of St. Patrick's Day, but for whatever reason didn't publish it.

We return to Sean O'Sullivan's Folktales of Ireland for another story of the fair folk. This one, told by Diarmaid Mac Seain in Donegal, 1946, concerns itself with the tension between the old (fairies) and the relatively new (Christianity). Like the other tales of fairies in Ireland, it's a legend; meaning it has the benefit of the doubt in regard to veracity. It's told of a man from the city of Teelin.
This fisherman was in Church on a Sunday when he was overcome by a strange weakness. He left the church and stumbled along the road, feeling a little better. He came up on a gentleman, who asked what was the matter. He told the gentleman, who pulled a florin out of his pocket and handed it to the fisherman with the words, "Go to the public house and buy yourself a glass of whiskey. It will do your heart good."
The fisherman thanked him and headed for the pub. The florin was valuable, so he ordered the finest whiskey in the house. He put the change in his pocket, drank the whiskey, and chatted with the bartender--Eamonn--about his trouble.
The next day he was going fishing, and wanted tobacco. He went to the shop, and when he reached into his pocket to pay for the tobacco he found the florin where he thought only to find his change from the day before. He said nothing about it, paid for the tobacco and went fishing. At the end of his work, he went back to the pub for another whiskey. He found that the florin had returned to his pocket. This sort of thing happened every time he paid for anything for the next few days, until he began to worry. He thought that no good could come of it, and he worried that the man who had given it to him might not be a man at all. It got so that the fisherman was worried to go out on the sea to do his job with the coin in his pocket.
Eventually, he went to Eamonn's pub and, when paying for his whiskey he could take it no more. He flung the coin on the counter and said, "May the devil go with you!"
He told Eamonn the whole story. Eamonn said the fisherman was a fool to say that about the coin; he should have kept it. Intent on inspecting the coin, Eamonn went to his till to find it.
It had vanished.
The fisherman told the story to everyone he met, convinced he'd been given the coin by a fairy.
It's a good story, exhibiting the usual attribution (Eamon is named specifically, even his surname) and localization (Teelin, a church in Carrick). O'Sullivan points out that this story can be found in Israel and Norway as well.