Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Know thyself, or something like that

Sean Kleefeld helped me out a bit with my Superman book, and I've kept up with his writing since then. He writes a fanthropology column over at Freaksugar, and his latest is a good one for contemplation. He advocates interrogating your tastes, finding out exactly what it is about them that you like.

The lesson here seems to be that, if you’re a fan of something, be honest with yourself about what you’re a fan about.


We’re seeing that more and more frequently with people who voted for Trump. People who voted for him, for whatever reasons, and are now seeing him implement policies they didn’t realize would hurt them.

 So what are you a fan of?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Holy Heroes by Scott Bayles

Scott Bayles is a pastor in Illinois who is a big Superman fan. I met Scott at the Superman Celebration in Illinois in 2010. We didn't have much time to talk, but we had that thing in common--we were both writing books about Superman. Scott's book came out last spring. It's called Holy Heroes: The Gospel According to DC and Marvel, and it begins with Superman, but goes beyond to examine numerous heroes for their religious resonance. It's got chapters on Wonder Woman, Flash, Hulk, Thor, and others.

Scott's a founding member of Costumers for Christ, which employs superhero costuming in ministry. He's also a key component of my own book; I interviewed him in 2012 and devote half a chapter to him, his family, and his costuming. He blogs about the spiritual aspects of superheroes at Holy Heroes.

Scott has written two other books: The Greatest Commands and Restoring the Restoration Movement.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Some interesting links

Here's an essay on the old Death of Superman storyline from '92 by Stephen Sonneveld of Sequart. Sonneveld places the story in the context of the decade that produced it and the contemporary comic trends. Here's a bit worth quoting:

Superman would meet his end not by an egotistical genius or an intergalactic despot, but by an unfeeling force of nature that lived solely to rampage. For all of Superman’s compassion, he could not reason with this beast. For all of his ingenuity, he could not outsmart this gray behemoth. Winds change and tornadoes destroy. Plates shift and the earth quakes. Doomsday runs free and great heroes die.
His craggy appearance notwithstanding, there was √©lan to this idea. It is difficult to say if the public response would have been so strong had the fatal blow been delivered by a recurring villain. To most outsiders, it probably would have seemed like comic book business as usual. But the fact that this “devil ex machina” was created for the singular purpose of killing Superman again invoked the sense that this character, above all others in the medium, was on par with the myths of old – with the Greek pantheon whose threads were cut by the sisters Fate; the damned Norsemen facing Ragnarok.
In popular terms, for this brief moment, Doomsday was Superman’s greatest villain.

And an examination of one of my favorite movies over at the AV Club: Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. It's a movie whose whole plot and character development hinge on the pronunciation of a single word. The essay's part of that publication's running feature about winners at the Cannes Film Festival. I spent a couple of nights in Cannes back in 2006, unrelated to the film festival. My wife and I were taking trains all around Europe, and that's where we decided to stay. It was during the World Cup. We'd been in Germany a week before when Germany won a big game. then we'd gone to Italy when Italy won in the semi-finals. We were sure France was going to win the final because it fit the pattern, but Italy won.

Speaking of France:  I just finished Vincent Mahe's 750 Years in Paris, which chronicles the development, destruction, redevelopment, etc. of a single building in that city, through a bunch of major historical events, beginning with the Knights Templar marching through town in 1265. If you're into Here by MacGuire, this is a nice way to follow up on it.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Batman v. Superman v. Prometheus

Finally got around to watching Dawn of Justice. I probably should have been right there on opening night to see it, since my own book on Superman is coming out in November or December, but I have to admit that I'm not on board with these movies. But I do think that I made the experience not as hard on myself as it might have been. I read all the spoiler reviews, so nothing in the movie was a surprise to me except Luthor telling the story of Prometheus right in the middle there (more on that below). Knowing what was to come made me not hate it as much as I might have if, say, I hadn't known that Batman kills a bunch of dudes, or that Luthor has files on everybody that will be in the Justice League film, or that Superman kills some dude, or the whole peach tea thing.

I don't have anything to add to the criticisms that abound on the Internet. Yes, the film doesn't work tonally, thematically, or logically. Yes, Wonder Woman was great.

What I thought was interesting was Luthor's retelling of the Prometheus story. Fragmented as it was, I was wondering if it was intentionally reflecting on Luthor's retelling of the same story, with different emphasis, in Superman Returns.  Here's the transcript of Luthor in Batman v. Superman, which is a speech given at a fundraiser for a library:

The word philanthropist comes from the Greek, meaning a lover of humanity. It was coined about twenty-five hundred years ago...between gods and men. Prometheus went with us, and he ruined Zeus's plan to destroy mankind, and for that he was given a thunderbolt. Choo. Hm, that seems unfair. On a serious note, the Library of Metropolis.. But at one time, dad could not buy them. No, my father could not afford books growing up. He had to root through the garbage...Books are knowledge, and knowledge is power. And I', what am I?...I...what was I saying? No. The bittersweet pain among men is having knowledge with no power, because that is paraDOXical, and.... Thank you for coming.

And here's Luthor in Superman Returns, talking to his girlfriend (?) Kitty Kowalski:

Luthor: “Do you know the story of Prometheus?  No, of course you don’t.  Prometheus was a god who stole the power of fire from the other gods and gave control of it to mortals.  In essence, he gave us technology.  He gave us power.” 
Kitty: "So we’re stealing fire? In the arctic?” 
Luthor: "Actually, sort of.  You see, whoever controls technology controls the world.  The Roman empire ruled the world because they built roads.  The British empire ruled the world because they built ships.  America, the atom bomb, and so on and so forth.  I just want what Prometheus wanted.” 
Kitty: “Sounds great, Lex, but you’re not a god.”   
Luthor: “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind.  No.  I don’t want to be a god.  I just want to bring fire to the people.  And I want my cut.”

Different directors, producers, and screenwriters. Different context, too. In BvS, Luthor is delivering a public address on the value of books and learning. Since we only hear snippets, the equation of a character and Prometheus isn't clear. In Returns, Luthor sets himself up as Prometheus against Superman as Zeus. Yet the specific resonance of Luthor as Prometheus is made explicit later on in BvS. When Luthor enacts his plan to get Batman or Zod/Doomsday to kill Superman. Standing on a skyscraper, he says to Superman:

Boy do we have problems up here. The problem of evil in the world. The problem of absolute virtue. The problem of you on top of everything else. You above all. Cause that's what god is. Horus, Apollo, Jehova, Kal-el. Clark Joseph Kent. See, what we call god depends upon our tribe, Clark Joe. Cause god is tribal. God takes sides. No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy's fist and abominations. I figured out way back, if god is all powerful, he cannot be all good. If he is all good, he cannot be all powerful. And neither can you be.  They need to see the fraud you are, with their eyes, the blood on your hands. And tonight they will.

Yeah, this post is mostly just a place to put these transcriptions so I've got easy access to them when it comes time to revise my dissertation. I wasn't surprised that Zeus wasn't among the list of gods there. But the interesting thing is that the earliest versions of the Prometheus story, those told by Hesiod in His Theogony and Works and Days, portray Prometheus as the villain. Hesiod liked Zeus a whole lot. Prometheus's tricks lead to nothing but misery for humanity. It wasn't until later, a couple of hundred years later, that the extant literature portrays Prometheus in a positive light. We learn with Aeschylus that Prometheus gave people more than just fire: arts and navigation, and things like that. Later still there's evidence of people actively worshipping Prometheus. Pausanias reports races being run in his honor. Potters wore rings made of iron and rock to resemble the chains that bound him.

It's an interesting transformation, taking place over centuries (as far as anybody today knows, that is; it's possible that people during Hesiod's time liked Prometheus a lot, too, but that their records are lost). It's also the opposite of what happens in some versions of the Superman/Luthor story. In Waid and Yu's Birthright, as with Smallville, Luthor and Clark are friends when they're younger. It's only later on that the antagonism begins. Of course it fits that Luthor sees Prometheus--and himself--as the hero in many of these versions, though not in Returns, where he's pure selfish villany.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Myth and History

Scholars like to classify things. Genre is a big deal in a lot of academia. My own discipline, folklore, began with genres, and it thrived in the early twentieth century based on that. The relationship between myth and folktales still gets some attention, and when people ask what I study, I usually list genres for them: myth, legend, folktale, festival...So it's always good to be reminded that in everyday practice, people don't care about these distinctions a whole lot. Here's Dennis Tedlock, writing about the Mayan text called the Popol Vuh:

We tend to think of myth and history as being in conflict with each other, but the authors of the transcriptions at Palenque and the alphabetic text of the Popol Vuh treated the mythic and historical parts of their narratives as belonging to a single, balanced whole. By their sense of proportion, the Egyptian Book of the Dead would need a second half devoted to human deeds in the land of the living, and the Hebrew Testament would need a first half devoted to events that took place before the fall of Adam and Eve. In the case of ancient Chinese literature, the Book of Changes, which is like the Popol Vuh in being subject to divinatory interpretation, would have to be combined with the Book of History in a single volume.

To this day the Quiche Maya think of dualities in general as complementary rather than opposed, interpenetrating rather than mutually exclusive. Instead of being in logical opposition to one another, the realms of divine and human act9ions are joined by a mutual attraction. If we had an English word that fully expressed the Mayan sense of narrative time, it would have to embrace the duality of the divine and the human in the same way the Quiche term kajulew or "sky-earth" preserves the duality of what we call the "world." In fact, we already have a word that comes close to doing the job: mythistory, taken into English from Greek by way of Latin. For the ancient Greeks, who set about driving a wedge between the divine and the human, this term became a negative one, designating narratives that should have been properly historical but contained mythic impurities. For Mayans, the presence of a divine dimension in narratives of human affairs is not an imperfection but a necessity, and it is balanced by a necessary human dimension in narratives of divine affairs. At one end of the Popol Vuh the gods are preoccupied with the difficult task of making humans, and at the other humans are preoccupied with the equally difficult task of finding the traces of divine movements in their own deeds.

Myths are often about patterns (Eliade's Myth of the Eternal Return foregrounds this aspect). Think of patterns as not merely something observed, but more like a set of instructions: myth as a sewing pattern, used to cut out and stitch together the future. N.K. Jemesin, in an essay I want to be able to find easily, writes,

Myths tell us what those like us have done, can do, should do. Without myths to lead the way, we hesitate to leap forward. Listen to the wrong myths, and we might even go back a few steps.

I wish I would have written that, and written it that well.

There's a lot to say about this topic. I used to enjoy rereading mythologies just to pinpoint the precise moment when myth became history. Expulsion from Eden, Wangetsmuna blowing the horn that freezes all the animals in their present forms, stuff like that. I stopped doing that, in part because I think I realized that the dividing lines by which scholarship thrives don't always apply in the quotidian world. There are numerous worldviews present in the world today, and in many of them, that line between myth and history simply doesn't exist.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Here, by Richard McGuire

I have a new favorite book: Richard McGuire's comic Here.* I saw it recommended by Book Riot's Hattie Kennedy among 100 Must-Read Comics. The Bloomington library had a copy, but I think I might get my own  because I like it so much. I wish I'd come up with the idea behind it. Actually, I wish I'd come up with it and had the visual sensibility, eye for design, and artistic skill necessary to create it.

The image above is a two-page spread showing, simultaneously, the events that occurred in a single space in the years 1624, 1995, and 2126. Every page is like that, a spread with up to a dozen different images.They range from 3,000,500,000 BCE to 22,175 CE (I think that's the farthest in the future it goes). Multiple stories take center stage; some are only ever a few small panels, some occupy the entire spread. Some are sequential, some are shown only every so often. While the future scenes are some of my favorite, they're wisely used sparingly. The single image of water flooding through the window in the year 2111 speaks volumes--I'll leave you to discover the images from various years (18 in all) that accompany that flood. There's a lot going on, and it rewards second and third readings.

Some of the events include contact between European and Americans, Ben Franklin visiting his son (much more contentious than you might think, since it occurs in 1775), the building of the house visible in the background of the above image (which took place in 1907), and lots of everyday activities. In one sequence I like a lot, a woman sets up a movie screen--one of those old tripods that, believe it or not, I had to set up for an event at IU just yesterday--to watch some old Super 8 movies with her family.

One thing that appeals to me is that McGuire only hints at most of the events. They feel random, but there are thematic resonances that make for some profound and fascinating pages. Here's one:

Slightly cut off in that scan is the time stamp of 500,000 BCE. Each panel refers to some sort of loss. In 1932 (far left) "I lost my wallet." 1923 (middle) I must have left the umbrella somewhere. 2008 (right) "I think I'm losing my mind," spoken into a phone

Figurative and literal loss laid over the watery, soupy mess of half a million years ago. A loss that can be very frustrating (wallet), but yet it's not even possible without all the gains that have created the scenes taking place in the house itself. Half a million years provides a dry area, wood and mud to build with, and the house in which the three people experience their lives.

There's something whiggish about descriptions of Here, which tend to focus on the "corner of a room" aspect of the book. That makes it easy to describe, but the book itself doesn't force that description. There's a T-rex, after all. If I had the time, I'd count how many of the spreads have as their background focal point the room and how many show the landscape (which includes Franklin's house: the book doesn't give away the location with any precision, but the Franklin house across the street can locate it for us [William Franklin, illegitimate son of Benjamin, that is], as does the reference in this interview with McGuire, which tells us that the artist used his parents' house in New Jersey; we cannot locate it astrally because, strange as it seems to notice, there are no stars, not even in nighttime scenes).

The theme of the book as a whole, then, is impermanence. A worthy subject. Putting stars in wouldn't fit the theme; they're the closest thing we have to permanence. Mountains crumble, lakes dry up, nations come and go. The stars might shift a little here and there, but they'll outlast us all.

Here is a truly nonlinear book; there's an electronic version that amplifies and sometimes alters the juxtaposition of the different frames. You can see a sample in the videos that accompany the write-up of the book in The New Yorker.

In the interview linked to above, McGuire notes that the electronic and print versions have different strengths:

The book form works perfectly for telling this story, but I also wanted to push the nonlinear aspects of the storytelling. I imagined an interactive version that could randomize all the panels and backgrounds and reshuffle them, and with the new combinations come new connections within the story. I spoke about this possibility at a lecture I gave, and by luck there was a developer in the audience, Stephen Betts, who knew how it could be done. We collaborated on that for two years, right alongside of the making of the paper version. Stephen wrote a lot of programing for what became the e-book. It’s unlike any other I’ve ever seen. It also incorporates animated GIFs and, for me, those little looped movements feel the closest to single memories.

 I think I prefer the print. I could stare at these pages for hours.

*Previous favorite book: Alessandro Falassi's  Folklore by the Fireside.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Obligatory Star Wars Post

Well, finally went to see Rogue One. I'll comment on that movie in a bit, but first I wanted to link to a a piece about the original Star Wars flick.

First, a lengthy examination of the aesthetic of Star Wars (77) by John Powers. His blog is called Star Wars Modern, and he's got some good stuff there--not just about Star Wars. This particular essay isn't on the blog exactly, but linked to from there. He's looking at the way Episode IV fits into the art movements of its time. Pretty interesting stuff. Here's a bit of it:

A flying saucer had never been a slum before. The immaculate silver sheen of the saucer was reinvented as a dingy Dumpster full of boiler parts, dirty dishes, and decomposing upholstery. Lucas’s visual program not only captured the stark utopian logic that girded modern urban planning, it surpassed it. The Millennium Falcon resisted the modernist demand for purity and separation, pushing into the eclecticism of the minimalist expanded field. Its tangled bastard asymmetry made it a truer dream ship than any of its purebred predecessors. It is the first flying saucer imagined as architecture without architects.
By placing Episode IV in the aesthetic and political context of its times, Powers is able to gain insight into its impact on the world that would come after. I'd read that Lucas intended the Empire to be the United States before, though I don't recall where (it was conceived as a response to the Vietnam war). I think there's more about that concept in J.W. Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars, a book that's on my list to read. Someday I'll get to it. When the world has ended and I'm the only one left and I've broken my only pair of spectacles.

I haven't read much of Marvel's new Star Wars comics. Just Kieron Gillen's Darth Vader series, which is excellent. I haven't gotten to the end yet, so don't spoil it for me in the comments.  Gillen's one of my favorite writers these days. I'll probably devote a post to his work before too long.

Back to Star Wars...I wasn't crazy about the first hour of Rogue One. I'm tempted to say that I thought it was a waste of time. Then the action started, so that was okay. My son loved it, but only at the end. There was a bit with an alien lie detector that's tonally out of place and is just plain disturbing. It's when this weird slug octopus is going to interrogate an Empire pilot who has defected to the rebellion and wants to help destroy the Death Star. I was trying to figure out why it was so disturbing; after all, it's not as though we haven't seen the threat of torture before: Leia has to deal with that weird floating needle robot in Episode IV, and Han gets that sparking stabby thing in Empire. My only guess is that the scene in Rogue One featured an alien creature as the torture device. It was disgusting, intentionally so, and horrific precisely because of its organic nature. That the previous scenes featured electronic devices softened them a bit?

It might be a stretch to call the scene in Rogue One torture or "enhanced interrogation," but that's how it feels. And this leads to the second reason it was so unpleasant: it was done at the behest not of Vader, but of somebody we're supposed to think is a good guy. Vader's appearance codes him as evil, so we expect evil things of him. We first see Saw Gerrera saving the main character, who's a young girl. So we initially think he's on our side. Then we get that scene, which is essentially the second scene he's got in the film. Its effect is to show us that we can't really trust him, because who would subject anybody to...that...whatever it is that happens offscreen once we're off to follow Jyn and Cassian. I guess we're supposed to figure that the rebellion isn't all that great, and that it counts among its members people who are willing to justify their means by the end they achieve. Saw wants to know if this defecting pilot's motives are genuine, and I assume he gets his answer. But he still imprisons the pilot. Okay, I looked up his name: Bodhi Rook. Not sure I would ever have learned that from the movie.

So that's another reason I didn't care for the first hour. That scene, and Saw Gerrera. They felt tonally dissonant from the rest of the film.

Birth.Movies.Death did a debate about the film, one writer liking it, the other not so much. Is it weird to say that I agree with both?