Saturday, November 17, 2018

Bill Maher and the low art of comics

Anybody who's a comic book fan has probably read what Bill Maher has had to say about Stan Lee. Apparently, Maher doesn't see what the big deal is, and he thinks that comic books can't be sophisticated because they contain pictures. I'm not going to go too into Bill Maher here. I lean pretty left, so I appreciate when he criticizes conservatives and Trump. However, he's a tremendous hypocrite for calling out the right for its climate change science denial while espousing scientific illiteracy when it comes to vaccines and GMOs. (And even though he's an atheist like myself, his movie Religulous contained a lot of really bad arguments.)

Anyway, Neil Gaiman said it best with his tweet: "More people cared about Stan Lee’s death than care about Bill Maher alive."

With that said, I wish that people would get over the whole thing with mixing words and pictures. Literature can be high art, correct? So can drawings, right? Why is it bad when you put them together, either in a comic book or a picture book? Most people can't draw much of anything, much less draw well. Artists, including comic book artists, take years and years to develop their skills. When it comes to comic book artists, they not only need to know how to draw, they need to know how to tell a story with pictures. Ever look at a comic and get confused as to what order you should look at things? While the problem might be with you, chances are also good that the artist doesn't know how to construct a page just right so your eye flows naturally from one panel to the next.

I realize that lots of people are already citing works like Maus and Watchmen as examples of the genre achieving high-art status. That's worth mentioning, but even if we didn't have these ready examples, the very notion of panning an entire art form is just ridiculous.

Think of it this way: if the problem with comic books is that they require pictures and can't just use words, then what does that say about every other form of art?

Music? No thank you. I'll just read books of poetry because I don't need somebody to sing it to me! Some of those songs don't even have words!

Those folks who see live productions of Shakespeare? What, they need a bunch of actors to perform the play for them? Why can't they just read it? It's all published in books!

Ever go to an art museum? Why? Don't you know how to read?

The irony of it all is that the basis of Maher's criticism is one that can be leveled much more effectively at the way he makes his living - television. What, that's high art all of a sudden? (I believe that it can be, but if only comics or television can be on the list of high art, I'll put comics first.)

I reckon that Maher probably hasn't looked at a comic book since he was a kid, and he figures that they're all the same as they were back then. (But I also hate the idea of disparaging entertainment made for kids. That can be just as great as anything else.)

I don't expect everybody to have the same depth of knowledge about comics history that I do, but I wonder if Maher would be surprised if he found out that his attitude is rooted in one that was spearheaded by puritanical religious zealots who sought to ban comic books in the 1950s. The medium has been getting more and more respectable over the years, attracting a more diverse audience. I've been reading them for over 30 years, and I used to hear people say stuff like what Maher did all the time. I guess it just kinda shocked me that a guy who did a cameo in Iron Man 3 would be so totally clueless. Surely he knows and interacts with some pretty intelligent comic book readers?

Lastly, he tries to draw a link between the fact that we take comic books seriously in this country and we elected Donald Trump to the presidency. I guess Maher also doesn't know how much more respected comic books are in Europe and Japan.

Whatever. The man likes to feel like he's better than all the rubes out there, but somebody needs to tell him that you need to choose between being condescending and being full of shit. You don't get to do both.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Excelsior to the Man

It's rare that I get sad or even shed a tear when it comes to a celebrity death. Today is different though because Stan Lee has passed away. It's not like this was sudden and unexpected. The man made it to 95, and his ailing health has been in the news. It still hits me hard though because I feel like it's the end of something more than just one of my favorite creators.

I don't know how old I was when I first became aware of Stan Lee. I remember that he narrated Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, so I must have been around seven or eight. I remember that my sister had to correct me, as I thought he kept saying "This is Stanley" as opposed to "Stan Lee".

I've met him four times in my life. I remember the first time, when I was probably twelve or thirteen, I told him that I had been a fan of Spider-Man my whole life. I'm not sure what he said in reply, but it was a witty/funny/heartfelt response.

The second time, when I got him to sign the first issue of the Silver Surfer story that he did with Moebius, I told him that my mother had also read and enjoyed that particular comic. He responded with "Tell your mother I said hello."

I honestly don't remember the third time, but I have the autograph from 1991 to prove it.

The fourth time was just a few years ago when he did a signing at my local comic book shop, Flying Colors Comics. My wife wanted to be there, but she had jury duty. My son was only four years old, and wouldn't understand why we were waiting in line. I wanted them to be a part of it though, so I got Stan to hold up a picture of my wife and son for the photo I got. He seemed to get a genuine kick out of it. When I thanked him for coming out to do the signing, he replied, "Yeah, that was awfully nice of me to do that."

It's hard for me to convey just how much Stan Lee means to me. If you scroll through my blog, you'll see that I write a lot about comics. While comics would certainly exist without him, I'm not sure that I even would have gotten hooked if it had not been for him. While I read all sorts of stuff now, it was Marvel Comics that sparked my imagination initially. And while it's true that creators like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby did not receive their fair share of credit and attention, Marvel would not be Marvel if it wasn't for Stan Lee.

When my son was really little, I read to him some of those old Lee/Ditko Spider-Man issues. While Ditko's art is something that I have grown to appreciate over time, I always enjoyed Lee's dialogue, and reading it out loud made me realize how much of the very character of Marvel Comics is due to his way with words.

Stan Lee always managed to balance fun and gravitas at the same time. The titles of the stories set the reader up for this unique mix of storytelling: "When Falls the Meteor!", "Where Flies the Beetle!", and "If This Be My Destiny!" This is some serious stuff, dammit! But you're going to enjoy every second of it, double dammit! And even if your first Marvel Comic wasn't written by him, his style continued to permeate throughout the books long after he stopped writing them on a regular basis.

I think that this is one of the reason why I love the Marvel movies so much. Is there anything more fun than watching Thor and Rocket Raccoon have a heart-to-heart talk over the fact that Thor no longer has anything left to lose in his life? But at the same time, it's all taken very seriously, and you can feel empathy for both a talking raccoon and the god of thunder. That's some Stan Lee influence right there, and I think the movie makers, from the producer to the director to the actors, would be the first ones to admit that.

Speaking of the movies, one thing that's great to know is that Stan finally got to see all of those characters finally get the respect they deserve from Hollywood. I remember when I saw him for the first time at a convention, he was talking about the inevitable release of all kinds of movies based on Marvel characters. I remember telling my uncle all about that, and he had to break it to me that Stan had been hyping all kinds of projects ever since he moved out to Hollywood, and most of these projects never saw the light of day, and those that did were major clunkers (see Dolph Lundgren in The Punisher).

I doubt that I'm going to be the only one writing a tribute to Stan who touches on the fact that his biggest talent was as a master of hype. Yeah, he could write a good story, and he changed the way superhero comics were done, but his biggest skill was getting people excited. That was right there on the page, but it also would come through in that unmistakable, charismatic voice of his. (He doesn't just get all of those cameos because of his creator credits!)

Anyway, this one is hard on me because it feels like something bigger has come to an end. Stan was around during the Golden Age of Comics. He changed the way things were done during what he (of course) dubbed The Marvel Age of Comics. While he may not have been doing regular monthly books by the time I started reading in the 1980s, his presence was always there. My son, who only takes a passing interest in superhero comics, knows who he is. My wife knows who he is. Shoot, pretty much everyone knows who he is.

I often share obituaries of important comic book creators on Facebook. I usually only get a few people who like/comment, as not many people know who they are.

Everybody knows Stan Lee though. I don't think that there's another comic book creator where I can say the same.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Smash diabetes!

Sometimes, in order to save my seven year old son's life, I give him gummy bears. A friend of mine once helped me out by giving him Cheetos. I've also given him cake frosting, which I had to do the last time we took a bike ride. I just told him to open his mouth as I squeezed it right out of the tube.

Before you think to yourself, "Gummy bears? Cheetos? Cake frosting? What kind of wonderful disease is this and how do I catch it?" I've gotta break the bad news to you. For starters, it's type one diabetes, and that also means getting a lot of shots and needing insulin in order to properly digest food. If you still want it despite all of that, sorry, but you can't catch diabetes. Basically, your immune system needs to attack your own body. (That's type one diabetes anyway. Type two is another story, and you can look into that for yourself.)

It's been about a year now since my son was diagnosed. I can laugh about it and see the humor now, but I certainly couldn't then. I remember while my son was in the hospital, I was having dinner with my in-laws at a restaurant right next door. I had to get up and leave during my meal so I could just sit outside the place and cry. No doubt lots of people who were walking and driving by saw me, but I didn't care because there was just so much pain that I had to get out.

Diabetes didn't happen to me. It's my son who's going to have to live with it and deal with it for the rest of his life. But most of you parents know that a child is a piece of yourself that you let go into the world. Not only that, but it's the most vulnerable part. It's the part where you'd sacrifice the rest of you to save. I wrote some time ago about how my great-grandfather died while saving one of his children, but unfortunately there are no horses that I can jump in front of in order to save my son from diabetes.

Want to know what's really horrible? If you have kids, you no doubt know how much they don't like shots. Imagine telling your kid that there's not just another shot coming up later that day but that shots are going to be a regular thing for him several times a day for what's probably going to be the rest of his life. I'll never forget the look on his face, and I'll never forget how I felt.

Another thing that I remember shortly after coming home is that I watched the horror film It Follows. I don't want to get too bogged down into the plot right now, but ultimately it's about a monster (that takes the form of a person) that will continuously hunt down its victim. There are all kinds of things that the victim can do to temporarily get away and/or delay its inevitable arrival. Strangely enough, I found this film to be not just a great horror film but strangely cathartic. This is essentially what diabetes is. It's a death sentence. My son can stop that rise in blood sugar with insulin, but eventually he's going to have to take insulin again with his next meal. I guess the film held a mirror up to reality and helped me to deal with it.

Another pretty bad thing was when I was taking care of him a couple of days after he came back from the hospital. We were trying to do the finger prick so he could find out his blood sugar level. For some reason, the device wasn't set to the right level, and there wasn't enough blood coming out to get a proper reading. I made the poor guy poke himself again and again, and the whole time he just wanted to eat some lunch. I pretty much freaked the hell out by cursing and shouting and banging my fists on the table. (In full disclosure, I was also pretty hungry, which no doubt made me think less clearly. Parents! Take care of yourselves if you want to take care of your kids!)

One of the worst things, which fills me with guilt, is a picture of my son that was taken shortly before his diagnosis. He looks so gaunt in that picture. I ask myself how I didn't notice. Why didn't I insist on taking him to the hospital sooner? Why was I in such denial and figure that he'd snap out of it just like I pretty much always do when something's wrong with me?

Of course, I know it's hard to tell in the moment because he didn't go from healthy-looking to sickly overnight. Plus, I need to take comfort in the fact that my wife and I have been taking good care of him (and even he does his part) so that he looks really strong and healthy now.

But still, that guilt monster comes crawling back at me just when I think I've defeated it. (I guess that movie works on a few levels for me. Funny how it's really more of an obvious metaphor for STDs, but as I always tell my students, sometimes a deeper level to a story comes more from what the audience gets out of it than what the storyteller intended.)

I originally wrote a longer post where I detailed what happened when he was diagnosed, while also going into my own struggle with anxiety and depression that I was battling right before then. Maybe I'll get to those at another time. Right now, I needed to get some of this stuff off my chest. This was too hard for me to write about until just recently. Not too long ago, it seemed like I couldn't even look at my son without feeling sorrow for the fact that he had this disease. When I would see pictures of him when he was younger, I could only think about how that was before his diagnosis and everything was so much easier then.

Like I said, I can laugh at some of the absurdities of it all now. Perhaps it's because shots aren't that big a deal for him to get or for me to give. He's always willing to take another if he's hungry enough for another slice of pizza or more fried chicken. I've also discovered how brave of a kid that I have. It's a hell of a way to find out, but I'm pretty confident in saying that he is brave because I've seen him put it into action.

And while it's true that he's been handed a death sentence, haven't we all? It's all just more immediate for him, and while I always worry about the future, there was never any guarantee that everything would be okay. Now I just don't get to pretend anymore.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Read These Comics! - The Silver Surfer: Parable

If you would have asked me a week ago how many Stan Lee signatures I had in my comics collection, I would have told you three. The first time was in 1987, the second time in 1989, and the third time in 2014. Imagine my surprise when I sat down to re-read The Silver Surfer: Parable to find that he not only signed the first issue (as I remembered from '89) but the second issue in 1991. And as an added bonus, he signed the backboard and wrote "Excelsior!" Geez, how did I forget about that? I'm not even 100% sure what convention that was.

Anyway, since this series first came out in 1988, that places me at about thirteen years old when I first read it. I'm sure that I read it a few times after that, but adulthood brings fewer rereadings of comics, and it's safe to say that I haven't read these comics in over twenty years.

How does it hold up? Pretty well.

It's a solid story, and it doesn't read like what Stan did back in the 1960s. Even if you don't like the story, it's pretty clear that we have a master of the art form. He knows when to just let the pictures tell the story, and unlike some of the comics from the Silver Age, he doesn't bog it down in a lot of redundant exposition.

I should also say something about Jean "Moebius" Giraud. For those who don't know, he's a French artist, and this is one of the few American comics that he's done. I've read some of his other works, including the Western Blueberry, and some of The Incal. While I appreciated the art, I just couldn't get into them. Don't get me wrong, this is not me telling you to avoid them. By all means, check them out, because he has a lot of fans and is well-respected all over the world. The problem might be me.

My only complaint about the art is that this series wasn't printed on higher quality paper like it deserved. (There have been reprints that have rectified this.) Still, even that doesn't hurt it. While I complimented Lee on knowing when to let the pictures tell the story, he wouldn't have been able to do so if the artist didn't know how to tell a story.

Any story that features the world-devouring Galactus needs to make him look not just like a giant, but downright god-like. That's exactly what you get from this. It's especially important because in this out-of-continuity story, Galactus essentially comes down as just that - a god. Moebius really sells it, and the reader can really feel the terrifying grandeur of the character on each page.

When Galactus first arrives, he just stands there in the middle of the city. He doesn't break out his machines in order to devour the planet. He's like an old-time religious idol, and he's worshiped as one. This is exactly his plan, as he knows that the presence of a god will lead to chaos and the destruction of humanity, as nothing inspires people to kill like doing the will of a god. He doesn't even make any commandments, as he (rightfully) figures that some human will claim to speak for him soon enough. It's not until the Silver Surfer blasphemes this god that Galactus begins to move and shows what he truly is - a force of destruction. I don't want to say anything else about the story, as I hope that you're able to read it for yourself.

After reading a few interviews with Stan Lee, it's safe to say that he lies somewhere on the agnostic-atheist side of things when it comes to belief in God. But just like a lot of us nonbelievers, he's clearly interested in the subject and explores it here. As I said before, I was just a kid when I read this. It really stuck with me though, and I remember that this was an example of why I'd insist to adults that comics were not just for little kids. While I wouldn't tell you that it's like reading a book by a religious philosopher, it does throw out enough interesting ideas to get you thinking. This was certainly the case when I was 13, but even at 44 I'm finding that I can't get it off my mind.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Green Lantern Corps and the Case for Jessica Cruz

Who knows what the heck DC/Warner is up to these days when it comes to their movies. They're obviously still trying to catch up to Marvel by trying so hard not to be Marvel. Jared Leto's going to be the Joker again, right? But now Joaquin Phoenix will be The Joker in a solo Joker movie? Why is the Joker getting his own movie?

As of this point, I wouldn't be surprised if they have all of their movies be nothing but a big buildup to The Wonder Twins. (And yes, I know that Wonder Woman was fantastic. And I actually liked Justice League in spite of its obvious flaws.)

Last I heard, the plan for Green Lantern was to make a Green Lantern Corps movie. Essentially it would be a buddy space cop movie with Hal Jordan and John Stewart. This is good because since Stewart is African American, we can get a little bit more diversity in our superhero movies.

But I'm going to make some longtime fans upset and utter something potentially blasphemous.

I say ditch Hal Jordan.

That's right. Forget Hal Jordan.

He had his chance. Was it the fault of Ryan Reynolds? I don't think so. I blame a half-baked script and awful special effects. But we've seen him on the big screen before, and it didn't work.

I realize that many longtime comics fans aren't going to like this. Hal Jordan is the original (unless you count the Golden Age) Green Lantern of Space Sector 2184. He's the classic model. Sure, he's been replaced in the comics before, but it pretty much always comes back to him. Whenever DC does a big crossover event and the Justice League needs a Green Lantern, he's the one we get. He's the one that most people recognize (except for kids who grew up with John Stewart in the Justice League cartoon).

If we don't get Hal Jordan, then who do we get?

We get the one who has the potential to be the greatest Green Lantern of them all.

Jessica Cruz.

Let's get the easy reason out of the way first why it should be Jessica representing 2814. She's both female and Latina. The first one is a pretty good bonus for diversity, the second one his huge. Don't tell me that there aren't any Latina superhero fans out there. I go to comic book conventions. I know that they're there. And I'm sure that there are some little girls who would love to see somebody who looks more like them up on the big screen.

Honestly, I feel as though that reason is good enough. But for me, I have something personal to relate to when it comes to her. I'm neither female nor Latin, but Jessica deals with anxiety just like I do. To be fair, I don't deal with the absolute crippling anxiety that she does, but I deal with it enough to relate to her.

And it's her struggle with anxiety that makes her the greatest Green Lantern. (That's right! I said it!) For those of you who don't know, current continuity posits that not just anybody can wield a green lantern ring. Other heroes have tried (notably Green Arrow and Batman) and while they were able to get some results, it was absolutely agonizing for them. A Green Lantern is somebody who can overcome great fear and possesses tremendous willpower.

While Jessica's story is far more complex than this, part of her backstory is that she went camping with some friends, and all of them were killed while she managed to survive. She has post traumatic stress syndrome, and it resulted in her shutting herself indoors for three years. Being a Green Lantern has been a struggle, and she has had difficulty creating constructs with her ring.

You might be wondering then, how can a shut-in with anxiety possibly be the greatest Green Lantern when they're supposed to be able to overcome great fear?

Because for Jessica, every time she walks out of the house, she is overcoming great fear. One of my favorite issue of Green Lanterns had her struggling to build up the nerve just to go to Simon, her friend and fellow Green Lantern's, house for a dinner party. Pretty much every moment is a struggle for her.

Some supervillain comes along who wants to rule the universe? He's secondary to just walking out the front door.

There is so much potential for this character, and I really hope that they continue to do great things with her.

Jesus is a friend of mine

Hey, Christians, are you tired of people referring to your relationship with Jesus Christ as a "religion"? (If you're fine with it being a religion, as I know many of you are, then just move along.)

Hey, religious skeptics, are you tired of Christians who are in denial about the fact that they are followers of a religion?

Guess what? I think that I can fix this for the both of you.

First off, I'm going to step out of my wheelhouse here and try and get into the mindset of the Christian who doesn't think of what they're doing as a religion. I hope that any "it's not a religion" Christians read this and correct me if I get anything wrong. Obviously, you all don't see things the same way, but I'm fairly confident that I can get the basic gist down. I could be wrong though, and I'm willing to write an update and/or have a conversation in the comments section until I accurately depict your point of view.

The word "religion" has a lot of baggage. There are a whole lot of people out there who have ruined it by being judgmental, violent, controlling, etc. That's not what a relationship with Jesus is about. Jesus came down to save us. He offers eternal salvation, and all you have to do is accept him into your heart and believe in his sacrifice. Doing so doesn't just win you a one-way ticket to heaven. It transforms you, on the inside. It changes your whole perspective on life, and you realize that you're living for a greater purpose. All the trivialities fall by the wayside, as Jesus makes it clear that whatever you're dealing with now is insignificant next to what he has to offer you.

Is that good? I think that's pretty good.

Religious skeptics? Are you still with me?

I know what you're thinking, because you're thinking what I'm thinking. Once you get past your huge inner "OH, COME ON!" groan, you'll point out that Christians have rituals and supernatural beliefs about the nature of this world. They're also organized, with some groups being more hierarchical than others. Those are all of the trappings of what we call religion. It doesn't matter if you think that you have a personal relationship with Jesus or that Ganesha has an elephant's head. It's all religion.

Christians, are you still with me? Because here's where I try and bring it all together and make everybody, or maybe nobody, happy.

For the religious skeptics, we need to realize that calling Christianity a religion comes off as being dismissive. When you lump Christianity in there with Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Norse Paganism, and the crockfest that is Scientology, you're not acknowledging the very personal nature of Christianity.

I know what you're thinking. "But other religions are also deeply personal!"

Yes, they are. And when we're looking at it from the outside-in, that's what we're seeing. But for the believer, it's not the same thing as all of those other beliefs. Christians have something unique, and they want to acknowledge that.

Yeah, yeah, "But all religions are unique in their own way!"

Again, to the believer, this isn't what matters. The way that Christianity is unique is what's important.

For the Christians who are still reading, maybe you can see why the talking point of "it's a relationship not a religion" doesn't get much traction with us skeptics. For me, even if it turned out that your religion was 100% the truth, and you really, honestly, literally have a relationship with the Creator of the Universe, then I still can't get my head around the idea that it's not a religion.

I guess what I'm saying there is that Christians should say, "To me, it's more than just a religion." That demonstrates the personal nature of the belief while not ignoring the definition of the word "religion" as it's understood by most people. (And again, I know of plenty of Christians who have no problem with that word. If you're one of those Christians, why are you still reading this? This isn't for you! Geez.)

And if a Christian words it that way? What should the religious skeptic say?

Nothing. Let them have it. Because to them, it's not just a religion. 

It's not just a religion in the same way that your mother isn't just "some lady". Yeah, she's "some lady" by the meaning of the term. She's simply "some lady" to most people on the planet. But she's not "some lady" to you.

And then when we're all done, we can rock out to the following:

Nobody reads a blog post about blog posts

Two years.

It's been two years since I've written in this blog.

Sure, I've ranted a bit on Facebook, and I've even written some longer, thoughtful posts that very well could have been a blog post.

But I've neglected this blog.

I'm going to keep this short, because posts about not posting and/or plans for future posts aren't interesting. However, I feel like I should acknowledge the absence.

Lots has happened in those two years. My son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I fell into a deep funk the day Trump was elected. I've been dealing with anxiety and depression (formally diagnosed even).

I've also read a lot of comic books. I want to write about them again.

I still really like beer. I don't drink much nowadays, but I suppose that I still have something to say as I haven't quit drinking. I just average a few a month as opposed to 1-2 a day.

I have started riding my bike a lot. I ride anywhere from 20-30 miles when I get a chance, which is usually once a week. Maybe I'll post about that.

But enough of this. I'm not even going to post this to social media. I'm just going to leave it here in case anybody notices the huge gap.

I have a few things on my mind. I'm going to write about at least one of them before the night is over.