Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Thoughts upon Completing the Space Odyssey Series

2001 may well be the masterpiece it proclaims itself to be. I was amazed by the descriptions that made me feel as if something was actually happening, page after page of ecology and climate during which no human acted nor any change took place felt as if it were vitally important.

The mystery unfolded into greater clarity than the movie would allow. Kubrick told the end in images, but Clarke laid it all out for us through the perspective of David Bowman. In this, the film may qualify as a myth while the book would be literature, if we define myth as that genre of narrative that comes closest to music because it requires a great deal of intellectual investment on the part of its audience. We all come out of music, as we all come out of myth, with our own interpretation based upon our own mood and history. While this is certainly true of all narrative, the mode of myth is particularly good at it. So while Clarke's description of Bowman's journey through the Monolith is fascinating and compelling, it is also clearly delineated. Bowman doesn't reveal much about those who created the monoliths, but we know all that he knows.

Which is not true of the film.

2010 is pretty good, too. There's stuff going on. 2061, however, was a huge disappointment. The mystery is never resolved to any interesting point, and the compelling component of the series is barely present. 3001 does little to advance it, preferring the plot to the idea. The ideas come in the form of futurity; of world-building and speculation. That's not why I read that book, and even though some reviews I dug up prepared me for a lack of answers, I was still annoyed. The interesting aspects of the story were perpetually deferred. There was little compelling in terms of character, though that is true of the series as a whole, aside, perhaps, for HAL.

Interestingly, Clarke revisits the same passages throughout. His chapter of 3001 called "The Firstborn" occurs in all four books, if I'm not mistaken. And while he proclaims that these repetitions are heavily edited, I'm not willing to check that statement. We revisit the firstborn, the depths of Europa, and the atmosphere of Jupiter, and a dying Astronaut's final words.

I began this series, as you may recall, as part of a study of science fiction versions of the "uplifting" of humanity by aliens. I'm fascinated by the idea that aliens came to earth long ago and tampered with people to make us somehow better, according to their standards. 3001 is the first book in this series that postulates a negative connotation to this idea. The aliens may not be entirely benevolent. They may lack a certain emotion, which might cause them to exterminate us because they don't like the way we've developed. The ideas are put forward, but never really explored. Towers stretching to the stratosphere, on the other hand, are described in great detail. But I wasn't the least bit interested in the towers.

That might have been to do with my own agenda, reading more for the aliens than for the vison of the future; but I doubt I am alone in this. And so, when the epilogue comes round, short and sweet ("'Their little universe is very young, and its god is still a child. but it is too soon to judge them; when We return in the Last Days, We will consider what should be saved.'"), I was more interested than in the 246 pages that preceded it.

What an evocation. It rivals and perhaps betters "My God, it's full of stars" from from the film. Note that it's a quotation. Something is saying that to something else.

We're given few clues. 3001 brings religious themes into the foreground far more prominently than the others. For the first time, the monoliths--especially the first one, from the African hominid chapters of 2001--are cast in a religious light: "This was where--in time and space--the human species had really begun. And this Monolith was the very first of all its multitudinous gods" (56).

There's a character, Theodore Kahn, whose sole purpose is to inject religion into discussions. And then there's Frank Poole's conversation with David Bowman, where Bowman says that "twice I have--glimpsed--powers...entities--far superior to the Monoliths, and perhaps even their makers. We may both have less freedom than we imagine" (233) .

It's not specifically a religious statement, but when freedom--or free will, as Poole formulates it--comes up, religion can't be far behind. Clarke has some interesting thoughts on religion in the future, which has all but vanished in the wake of the curing of mental illness.

So the effort to push humanity to sapience (or Mind, as Clarke first puts it) might be misguided in the end. But humanity fights against extinction. Everything seemed so optimistic in the first novels. By 3001, the violence of the twentieth century becomes the instrument of humanity's potential destruction. In the novel's timeframe, people have moved past such violence, but the length of time it takes messages to travel through space renders irrelevant the advancements of the third millennium. Clarke's message is clear: We can overcome our current insanity, but it might already be too late.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not a good business model.

My e-mail is awash with reports that there will be no Superman movie in the near future.

This, evidently, is news. Something not happening. Is news.

Everyday, I get messages that there is no plan for a live-action, feature-length, theatrical-release of a Superman movie. There are so many of these reports that I won't even bother linking to any of them.

Why is this important?

Well, according to one poll, Superman is the one comic book film that people want to see.

And the reason there's no Superman film in the works? I don't know. Maybe it has something to do with the legal stuff going on.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Science and Superman

In the world of comic books, the greatest villain is Frederic Wertham. His 1953 book Seduction of the Innocent crystallized the public opinion against comics, giving a voice to the distaste that obtained in many minds throughout the United States. It led directly to the Comics Code Authority, a self-censorship board that comics publishers created in order to pre-empt governmental involvement. Wertham objected vehemently to Superman, whom Wertham labeled a fascist who encouraged children to distrust authority (especially their parents) and to engage in vigilante justice. Embedded among these critiques was a subtler one: that Superman taught children incorrect lessons about physics: “Superman not only defies the laws of gravity, which his great strength makes conceivable; in addition he gives children a completely wrong idea of other basic physical laws. Not even Superman, for example, should be able to lift up a building while not standing on the ground, or to stop an airplane in mid-air while flying himself” (34).

Well, this article, The Science of Superman, goes to some length to prove that the science of Superman simply doesn't make sense--which, I suppose, none of us needed evidence of in the first place. Still, it's an interesting thought exercise. It comes from a book called The Science of Superheroes, by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg. I wonder if they tackle the perennial question, Would Wonder Woman's lariat really make me tell the truth?

This sort of thing--wondering about the possibilities behind Superman and other science fiction stories--is, evidently, a popular pastime among writers. Maybe among readers, too. There was a National Geographic channel special on the subject, as well as a book called The Science of Superman by Mark Wolverton. Here's an article from the USA Today about it. Predictably, a lot of this stuff came out around the time of the last Superman film, in 2006. Brief comparison: Where Gresh and Weinberg try to point out why Superman's powers simply cannot work, Woverton tries to come up with ways in which they could.

I spent a bit of time studying film, and I wonder if any film scholars have looked at it from the angle of cultural/economic focus point. This is more than trendiness, I think, though there is a bit of that going on. When a film comes out, lots of other aspects of the culture industry get behind it. Books appear, news stories and magazine articles explore it. Its history is laid bare for us to follow. And with Superman, it seems that all of a sudden, the putative science behind it became important.

And then there's this:

The strip is called Bizarro. He does a lot of Superman humor.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fan Culture

I've been struggling with what to do with "fan culture" since it's in some ways the foundation of my project. I'm in the thick of it now. But the problem is that I'm a folklorist who wants my book to be about folklore, not about pop culture. Superman is a strange topic for this, since the character arose in pop culture and has resided there for seventy years.

Well, it's not so much a problem in my mind. One of my goals is to demonstrate how little the boundaries of academic disciplines matter to people in their everyday lives. Medium matters to people, but not the way it does to university departments.

The primary thing that separates folklore from popular culture is standardized production--which is largely irrelevant to most people. Folklore is not mass produced. It doesn't come off the assembly line or the printing press. That's key to the definition of folkloristics as an academic discipline. It's what has historically separated it from others, such as English and film studies, etc. The lack of standardized production means that everytime folklore is performed, it will exhibit variation. Every time you tell a story, it will be different, for a possibly infinite number of reasons. And those differences might be meaningful. Then again, they might not. It's what I love about folklore. Endless possibility.

Fan culture does not so much exist for the performances of folklore. It exists for mediated entertainment, such as comic books. The creations of that fan culture, in the form of fan fiction, for example, would not qualify as folklore because the production, while creative, is standardized. Once you write your story and publish it to the internet, it's always the same. The text doesn't change. Every time someone clicks on it to read it, it's the same (other things may change, but that's a different story).

Yet fan culture does exhibit the variation and multiplicity that I love about folklore. It can come in the jokes told, the costumes made (and endlessly changed, as I'm learning through interviews with people who make and wear them--although there are costumes you can buy at the store, which are quite controversial in the world of fan costuming...), there are tattoos, and anecdotes, and all sorts of interesting bits of folklore. That's what I'm writing about in the first four chapters of my book. It's the stuff generally left out of fan culture studies, which focus on institutional, standardized responses to media.

Here's some stuff I've found about fan cultures:

There's a guy named Henry Jenkins who wrote about Fan Culture a while ago. He's got a blog with several entries about Superman. This one, written in response to the 2006 Superman Returns film, is particularly useful.

Then there's Matthew Pustz' book Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers.

Sort of about fan culture are the works of Lawrence and Jewett: The Myth of the American Hero and The American Monomyth.

Then there's Bill Schelly's The Golden Age of Comic Fandom.

A chapter of Martin Barker's Comics: Ideology, Power and the critics is called "Reading the Readers." I haven't gotten to this yet, but it might be relevant to fan culture.

Christopher Knowles' book Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes isn't of much use, but it does have a few passages about fans, especially about Alex Ross as a fan-turned-creator.

Speaking of fans as creators, Lauire Cowan's documentary Participate: The Revolution of Fan Culture is not too bad. Mostly interviews from a comic con in New York.

For me, the Holy Grail of Superman responses is the fan who posts to the internet something along the lines of "What Superman Means to Me." It's not as common as I'd like, and I get plenty of it from interviews. This essay by The Onion's Noel Murray is a good one, and it concludes thus:

The appeal of Superman–again, maybe just to me, though I think to others as well–is that because he can do everything, he doesn't have to do much at all. He can take care of business and then chill out, solitude-style, at his Arctic clubhouse, where he tinkers with robots and obsessively arranges his souvenirs into a massive monument to himself. Or he can spend a whole day thinking up the perfect birthday present for Batman. Or he can make publicity appearances, while dodging Lois' attempts to find out his secret identity. The stakes are pretty low in those forty-year-old Superman stories–even in the "imaginary tales" where some bored staffer figured out a way to end the endless Superman saga, at least for a week. And if somebody today wants to know how to write a Superman story, it shouldn't be that hard. Just ask a ten-year-old boy what he'd do if he were Superman, and take notes.

There's other good stuff in there, but this strikes me as something I might quote one day--especially that last line.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009



I've been staying away from the topic of nicknames lately. There are far too many, and they largely aren't interesting or worthy of comment. But two of them strike me as worth posting:

The Superman of volunteerism, Justin Brownlee.

And a commentary on Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neill, both called Superman, I suppose. Though I hadn't heard Shaq called that (he does have the tattoo). The writer thinks Howard should wait to take on the mantle until Shaq retires.

In Other Links

Here's an article that calls the Siegel house "A Shrine to Superman."

If I ever compete in mixed martial arts, I'll know how to perform the Superman punch.

Who Owns Superman?

There's a legal battle being fought for the copyright to Superman, and there's a concomitant internet debate about who should have the copyright.

Here's a basic statment of the issue. here's another.

This writer thinks a Superman in the public domain is a good thing, for "culture." He continues his argument here, the foundation of which can be summed up as follows:

Creative endeavours ultimately are the property of the commons, the public.

A great many things are wrong with that sentence. But, moving on...

There's no new information in this article, but the title is telling: "Writing and Ownership, Why Superman has Abandoned us."

And one final article, which sums up the status of the current legal situation, gives a nice timeline (though it's from Wikipedia, it seems ok), and has a strange prediction: Marvel will publish Superman.

Copyright is currently one of the more compelling issues in folklore. Who owns traditional culture? Who can determine what's done with it? Who gets the money from its display?

There seems to be three opinions to the matter.
1. Superman belongs to Time/Warner, who own DC Comics, who, under a different name, bought the character from Siegel and Shuster in 1938 and have renewed their ownership ever since. This is the corporate stance.
2. Superman belongs to the creators and their heirs, despite having sold the character long ago and being paid the contracted amount. They have tried to regain the character at several time since. This is the creator stance.
3. Superman belongs to everybody. This is the, um, public good stance.

Mark Twain argued in favor of eternal copyright, extending unto the descendants of writers. In his formulation, a business created by an individual could be run in perpetuity by that individuals descendants, so why on earth would the creations of a writer be any different? I'm sure other writers have chimed in on this stuff.

Let's talk about mythology.

If Superman is a myth, then everybody already owns the character. The most recent ruling has to do with the particulars of the origin story, which is perhaps the most often told story of the last century. I'm not talking about just the movies and the comics, but also about public discourse. Think of Obama's joking speech of last year, where he denied being christ but insisted that instead he was rocketed to earth from Krypton. That sort of retelling goes on all the time, in every medium as well as in everday conversation. Telling the story in that manner does not infringe upon copyright, as no one's making money from it. And parody is, of course, protected. Then there's the pastiche, such as Alan Moore's Supreme stories. Or Kurt Busiek's Samaratan. Or about a thousand other comic book characters.

There are academic retellings, there are political retellings, there are comedic retellings. And it's all fine. Thus making the third position both correct and irelevant. Unless somebody wants to publish their own Superman comic, or make their own Superman movie, to turn a profit.

As for positions

Monday, September 7, 2009

Aliens Among Us

I recently came across the transcript of the conference where George Lucas, Steven Speilberg, and Lawrence Kasdan sat down and hashed out the details of a little flick called Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's an amazing, 120 single-spaced pages of instructions on how to work out a story. But interestingly, right in the middle there's a reference to Erich Von Daniken.

Von Daniken wrote a book called Chariots of the Gods, published first in 1968. His basic premise is there's a single answer to all of the mysteries from humanity's prehistory. Evidently everything we can't explain--how the Egyptians built the pyramids, why the Mayans abandoned their civilization, what early artwork is all about, what's the truth in the stories of the gods...--can be solved: Aliens.

Aliens probably seeded earth with humanity, and returned at various intervals to help along the processes of evolution. Our destiny is in the stars, and getting there will involve mining the past for its wisdom. (Much debunking has occurred; see this article for particularly funny stuff)

(Ok, the relevance to Raiders comes in that Von Daniken thought that the Ark was built as a radio transimitter to god--the aliens--a point made by Belloq in the scene where he tells Indy to "sit down before you fall down.")

Also published in 1968: 2001 A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke (the Kubrick film came out the same year). It's a story about mankind's evolution being guided by aliens.

Twelve years later, astrophysicist David Brin published his first book, Sundiver. It's a story set in the future, when humanity has successfully guided the evolution of dolphins and chimpanzees to the point of sentience. They've also been contacted by a number of alien species. Basic to the book (and its sequels) is the idea that no species has attained sentience without the aid of extraterrestrial intelliences. I haven't gotten through the whole of the Uplift series yet, but it's hinted that there is a "mythical" alien species, referred to only as The Progentiors, that got the whole thing started billions of years ago. One of the mysteries of the series so far (I'm only on the second book, Startide Rising) is who, if anyone, "uplifed" humanity.

I'm sure there are a number of other stories that play with this idea: that humanity has been tampered with in its evolutionary path by aliens. I'll seek out as many as I can. As far as I know, Von Daniken is the only one who has taken the idea seriously. His book is a riot, full of "evidence" in the form of pictures of ancient artwork. HIs basic logical argument goes as follows: "Look at this picture! Doesn't it look like an alien!" Or, "We have no idea how the Egyptians got the idea of life after death, so it must have come from aliens."

Oh, right, what's this got to do with Superman?

Well, it seems like Superman is an alien who comes to earth. Now, he doesn't seem to deliberately mess with evolution...but on the other hand, he's always trying to get Lois Lane to go out with him (as Clark Kent). And dating is all about mating.

I'm not an expert in the history of Superman comics, so I don't know if this issue has been broached before. But I do know that in Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant's All Star Superman, Superman does eventually record his genetic code and give it to Leo Quintum, super scientist. The purpose of this is ostensibly, or perhaps putatively, so that Quintum can merge Superman's genes with human genes and create a hybrid race so the world will be ok without him. A World without Superman is a recurring trope in Superman comics.

It might just have been me, but I got the impression that Superman wanted Quintum to impregnate Lois Lane with a superbaby (one, presumably, that because it was created in a lab wouldn't give Lois the problems that Larry Niven spelled out in Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex).