Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Force Awakens - Review

Let's get a couple of things out of the way. First, this will not be a proper review. I'm just going to rattle on about this film because the basic feeling I have about it is that I simply loved it.

Second? I'm not a prequel hater. I recognize their flaws, but there is still a lot that I like about them.

Third? Hell yeah The Force Awakens was leaps and bounds better than the prequels - in pretty much every respect.

Fourth? Spoilers. Total spoilers. This is for Star Wars fans who have seen the movie already. You probably don't need to be a full-on Star Wars geek, but if you don't even know the difference between an Ewok and a Wookie, you should move on.

So, here are some thoughts:

The fact that this movie even exists: Let's all be honest. When it comes to the story behind Star Wars and what George Lucas originally intended, the fact is that he changed his mind all the time. Like that line where Uncle Owen says that he's "afraid of" the notion that Luke is too much like his father? Well, it only became cool when Lucas finally decided to make Vader Luke's father, and that was while he was working on The Empire Strikes Back.

I remember when I was a kid that there supposed to be nine movies, as though that was the plan all along. I remember nearly wanting to kill myself after reading an article in the newspaper that said that there probably wouldn't be a new Star Wars for at least another five years. Oh, and that was in 1983 when Return of the Jedi came out. Insert boisterous chuckle here.

For a time there, it sure seemed like we'd never see any more Star Wars movies, but finally the prequels came along and Lucas claimed that the plan was for there to be six movies all along. Nine? That's crazy talk. It's always been six.

While I didn't believe that as an official story, I figured it was doubtful that we'd ever see a new movie anytime soon. But here we are, and despite the fact that Disney didn't seem very interested in using the treatment that Lucas gave them for a new trilogy, we've got ourselves a new one (plus a bunch of spinoff films).

I didn't expect for this to happen, but the one thing that I never thought I'd see is the old cast coming back. I sure as hell never expected Harrison Ford to return as Han Solo considering he always seemed somewhat ambivalent about the character and even said in interviews that he had no interest in returning to the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. (But he was always eager to be Indiana Jones again.)

And yet here we are. More on the old fogeys later.

Daisy Ridley as Rey - Would it have been just as good to get a known actress for this part? I don't know. But I do know that you couldn't have gotten anybody better than her. I realize that this sounds like a billion other reviews out there, but she really managed to capture the mix of being both innocent and capable at the same time. She was instantly likable, and I was rooting for her the whole time - and yeah, I got choked up when the lightsaber flew into her hand and the familiar music played. In that moment, I loved her in the same way I love Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, etc. Yeah, they're fictional, but they're a part of who I am.

John Boyega as Finn - The previews made him seem like an interesting character. A stormtrooper who deserts? They were always so anonymous and existed to be shot down by the heroes. But here's one with a conscience. Cool enough, right? Well, the trailers didn't do him justice. The thing is, he was funny but never in a way that came at the expense of the story. Even if Rey wasn't in this movie and he had to carry the whole thing, it would still be great.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron - Did you know that his parents were a couple of rebels who likely conceived him in an one of those Ewok houses? If not, you should read the comic books. Aside from that, he was a really cool character and my only complaint is that he wasn't in the film more. I'm hoping for a bigger part for him next time. In a way, he was our entry into the movie, and he set the tone for this new generation of films. I'd say he did aces in that role.

BB8 - Look, I don't hate Jar Jar, but this is how you do a character that's cute and for kids. Were there some cutesy moments with him? Absolutely. However, they all came right out of the story. Also, there was something likable about him and that was his sense of loyalty.

Han Solo - Like I said, I never thought I'd see this happen. Maybe Harrison Ford agreed to do it because he knew that they'd finally kill off the character, and that's what he always wanted. Maybe it was the paycheck. Maybe he genuinely liked what JJ Abrams was doing with this movie. Maybe it's all of those reasons. Who cares? He was back, and that was awesome.

What was really cool was seeing him be both the rogue and mentor archetypes rolled into one. That way we got something both familiar and new with him. Also, it was great to see the skeptic, who didn't believe in the force, confirm that it's all true. (Because like a good skeptic, objective evidence changed his mind.) And as much as I liked the bit from the trailers where he explains that the whole thing is real, the best line was his rebuke to Finn, "That's not how the Force works!"

Princess Leia - It was good to see her even though she didn't have too much to do. Still, she definitely belonged and while she basically was only a more fleshed-out Mon Mothma to a new generation, us old school fans were all no doubt happy to see that she continues to fight the good fight.

Luke Skywalker - He didn't have much to do, but he sure did a lot with it. What exactly does that look on his face indicate? He obviously doesn't just think that Rey is some random person handing him a lightsaber. (And dammit, they had better explain how it was found!) But what has him so surprised? Is that Rey is his daughter? Is it that he didn't think he'd be found?

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren - How do you create a villain who doesn't feel anticlimactic after the defeat of Darth Vader and Darth Sidious? That's how, dammit. So much was riding on creating the perfect villain, and even though he might seem like a poor man's Vader in the previews, he definitely has his own thing going for him. Now that he's killed the guy who's arguably the most popular character in the entire series, it's pretty damn easy to root against this guy. Are they going to try and redeem him by the end of this trilogy? I don't know if it's possible, and I might not even want to see him redeemed.

Snoke - Who is this guy? What's his deal? Kylo Ren isn't Sith, but maybe this guy is? Maybe he's Darth Plagueis and Sidious was lying when he said he killed him? (Or just mistaken?) There better be more to him than just "one more dark Jedi". I'm fine with not knowing too much with this movie, but I hope that they have something interesting in store for us in the next couple of movies.

The prequels live - While I didn't want this new series to be a slave to the prequels, as we don't need discussions about midichlorians, I didn't want them to be completely disregarded either. As a fan of comic books, one thing I don't like is when new writers take over a series and dump all over what previous creative teams have done. I think that this movie has just enough to satisfy fans of Episodes I - III without getting bogged down in a time period that is basically just legend for all of the new characters. The references were subtle, but we got a line at the beginning about "balance to the force" and then there was a bit of a throwaway reference to using clone troopers. It also turns out that Ewan McGregor was brought in to record a line that was used in Rey's discovery of her force connection.

Is it too much like the original? Certainly there are a lot of parallels to the original (Episode IV to you youngsters) but I felt like there was plenty of new stuff to make me care about what was going on. I do hope that they really branch into some new territory with Episode VIII though. We've all accepted Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB8 as our new cast, and we're willing to go to the unfamiliar with them.

Do I have more to say? Probably, but I need to go to bed.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Captain America versus Fox News

I'm a bit late to the party here, as I picked up the latest issue of Sam Wilson: Captain America a week late, and I didn't get a chance to write about this until today. For those of you even slower on the draw than me, the latest adventure of Captain America seems to have some Fox News heads in a tizzy. Here's the video, in case you hate yourself enough to watch it:

They already start to lose me when their "expert" claims that comics are "struggling" lately. From my understanding, sales are pretty solid. Just like a lot of businesses, they have seen their highs and lows over the decades, and I know that they were predicting the end of them back in the 1990s. I certainly wouldn't think of the present as being one of the "low"periods. I also seem to recall reading that while most print publications are losing ground to electronic media, comics are one of the few that are actually up. So, yeah, that's Fox for you.

In the issue, Cap goes up against the Sons of the Serpent, a white supremacist group with ties to some classic Captain America villains with a similar agenda. The Sons are attacking people who cross the U.S. border with Mexico, and they speak in a lot of right-wing cliches:
"Also, you know how you make me press a one for English at the beginning of every call to my satellite provider? That is something I cannot abide!" 
"Look who it is, y'all! Captain Socialism is here to save the day!" 
"Are you really so far ahead on appeasing terrorists and apologizing for our country's greatness that you have the time to come down here and flout still more of our laws?"
Tucker Carlson describes the villain as being simply a concerned citizen who's worried about unchecked illegal immigration. He's a guy who attacks vulnerable people. What Carlson doesn't understand is that you can be a person who's concerned with illegal immigration and STILL view the Sons of the Serpent as being bad guys. The best villains usually speak a bit of truth. After all, isn't Poison Ivy, a Batman villain, just somebody who's concerned about the environment? Same with another Batman villain, Ra's al Ghul. He's concerned with the damage that humanity is causing.

But do you ever hear liberals coming forward and complaining that Batman is attacking liberals? Not from what I understand. That's probably because most people (including a lot of conservatives, I reckon, as these doofuses probably aren't the best representation of them) understand that it's not necessarily the motivation that makes a villain but the method. If Tucker Carlson sees a similarity between himself and the Sons of the Serpent, then that says more about him than it does the comic book.

The talking heads then go on to create a strawman, insisting that the message of the comic is that everyone in "the middle of America" is some kind of a small-minded bigot. That's hardly what's going on. Plus, they point out how the Sons cite the "crime and disease" of illegal immigrants as something that's actually a legitimate problem. Well, those are only concerns about illegals if you don't have your facts, as they are less likely to commit crimes. And call me crazy, but I'm more worried about diseases from anti-vaccination cranks who tend to be upper middle class white people.

Then you get a suggestion about how they should do a comic book on people guarding the border, supposedly keeping us safe. Do these people not realize that under a capitalistic society, such a comic book WOULD exist if anybody thought it would sell? Why should Marvel publish that? Since when is a business obligated to "tell both sides"? I realize that Fox likes to pretend that's what they do, but nobody's making them give equal time to the opposite of what they do, which would be giving actual facts.

It all gets wrapped up with the absurd notion that Captain America comics used to be free from politics, citing the front cover of the first issue where he punched out Hitler. Yeah, no politics there. I think that Trevor Noah has already covered this:

Then it ends with the completely daft "Keep politics out of comic books; that's what I say." What kind of crap is THAT? Do you read comic books, lady who is not Gretchen Carlson? Why don't you let the people who read them decide what goes in them and what doesn't? And they can decide with their wallets.

With all this said, as a fan of the comics, the first issue of this new series was a great read. I have had my misgivings about replacing Steve Rogers with Sam Wilson as the title character, but I've changed my mind. I said that I would change my mind if Marvel had the guts to make the story mirror the sort of freak-out that happened when Obama became President, and it turns out that's exactly what they did. And sure enough, I've changed my mind. Personally, I love the fact that they're pulling no punches when it comes to addressing politics and current events.

I also didn't make the connection when this series was first solicited that it was written by Nick Spencer, who's been doing some great work lately in general. His Superior Foes of Spider-Man was a hoot and a half, and he's actually made me care enough about Ant-Man to follow the new series. They definitely picked the right guy for the book, and while I liked Rick Remender's run well enough to read it all the way through, I haven't felt this excited about Captain America since Ed Brubaker was writing the series.

It also helps that artist Daniel Acuña is doing some great work on the title. I've always enjoyed his work, but this is probably the best I've seen from him. The one thing I loved about the last run with Remender was the top-quality art from Stuart Immonen (who's now rocking it on Star Wars).

While it still feels too recent since the last time Captain America was replaced, I'm on board for this particular direction. Even though we're not living in the 1940s, it seems to me that if you're going to switch Steve Rogers with somebody else, then that person has to be different. And while I still like Sam Wilson better as The Falcon, they're doing a good job of showing how things would be different with him carrying the shield.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Cal Shakes - King Lear

It only took a few minutes into King Lear at Cal Shakes for me (and my wife, as I found out later) to notice that things were a bit different from most other shows. Whether it's Shakespeare's writing, the talents behind this particular production, or a mixture of the two (most likely), it was clear that this was going to be more of an experience than anything else.

Honestly, I didn't have high hopes for this one. I was a bit disappointed with this year's Twelfth Night, and I figured that the main problem was that I was barely familiar with the source material. The other two shows at Cal Shakes this year didn't do too much for me either. I liked Life is a Dream just fine, and it was nice to be introduced to some Spanish drama. However, I didn't have enough to say about it in order to write a blog post. The Mystery of Irma Vep didn't really do it for me though. It's not that I disliked it, and I'm not saying it was bad. I'm just not a very big fan of that type of humor. I'm not quite sure how to describe it other than "schticky".

As for King Lear, I attempted to read it a few years ago and kinda slogged through it. I just couldn't feel any momentum coming from the text. I also tried watching a version that was essentially a filmed stage production, and that wasn't doing it for me either. (Not sure if I even finished it.) I had a bit of a better time with the graphic novel adaptation by Gareth Hinds. Still, I wasn't too enthused about the play itself, even though a friend of mine adores it, and I know that it's considered by many to be Shakespeare's best. With that, I only briefly re-familiarized myself with the play before seeing this performance because I just couldn't drum up the enthusiasm.

By the end of today's performance by Cal Shakes, I can now safely say the following:

I absolutely love King Lear.

Sometimes when I really love something, it's difficult to explain exactly why, and I feel like when I try to explain it, I'm somehow cheapening the experience. I think that I'm going to try anyway, even though I know that I'll never fully get across my feelings.

For those who don't know, the plot of King Lear is pretty simple. An old king prepares to divide up his kingdom among his three daughters, but he winds up disowning one of them. Why? The other two shamelessly exaggerate their love for him, but she tells him like it is. After she leaves, we find out that the other two daughters were all talk, and the one who was plain speaking was the one who actually loved him best (that last bit being mostly clear from the start). There's a subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester, who's also pretty bad at recognizing sincere love, as he trusts his scheming, bastard son over his other, loyal one.

Basically, like all great stories, it touches on universal themes about being human. In this case, it's all about how, when it comes to love, what matters is our actions toward others much more than the words that we say. Ever have somebody tell you that they respect you, yet it's so totally obvious that they don't? I know that I have.

There really wasn't a weak link in this entire production. Anthony Heald, who you might recognize from various TV and movie roles, did the one thing that's probably the most challenging thing for any actor who's doing Shakespeare. He managed to capture the poetry of the language while making it sound like something somebody would actually say. I have to imagine that this is toughest during the play's more emotional moments. Nobody speaks iambic pentameter when they grieve, yet you'd be convinced  that they do when you see this play.

Another standout was Aldo Billingslea, who played Lear's advisor, Kent. There is a moment in the play where he unloads a string of insults, and his delivery was nothing short of brilliant. I don't think that anybody could have done a better job, as it was totally in-character, yet his love for the language couldn't have come across any clearer. It was funny and beautiful at the same time. Lucky for me, I got a chance to talk to the man for a few moments after the play was over, and I got to tell him just how much I loved it.

As I said, I'm not as familiar with this play as I am with others by Shakespeare. Alter a line or two in Macbeth, and I'm going to catch it. With this, you can turn things all around, and unless it totally alters the story, I won't notice. However, the one thing that I caught was that they had Kjerstine Rose Anderson play the role of both Cordelia, Lear's youngest daughter (and the one who got disowned) and Lear's clown. In fact, it's not so much that it was the same actor, as this production had the clown BE Cordelia. How could such a thing be? Well, the clown was totally in Lear's head. After speaking with Aldo Billinslea after the show, I learned that the text had to be altered in order to make it seem like the clown was completely in Lear's head. I found that to be an interesting move, as it provides a really clear reason why the clown is the only one who can speak so plainly to Lear and get away with it.

I almost feel bad singling out a few actors in this play, because as I said, there wasn't a weak link in the bunch. Nobody's performance took me out of the reality that was being created on stage. Also, by the time it was all said and done, my wife and I had to just sit while everybody exited the theater, as we felt like we were still absorbing it all. (We were two of just a few people who gave a standing ovation. What the hell was up with that? Did these people not recognize brilliance when they saw it.)

I've seen a lot of plays at Cal Shakes. Some I've loved, some I've liked, and a few I've been a bit "blah" about. (Never flat-out hated anything though.) I think that this one might be my favorite, and I don't remember any other play stirring my emotions nearly as much as this one. Let's just say that I had to wipe my eyes a few times during the production. No! I wasn't crying! YOU WERE CRYING!

Another good indicator as to how brilliant this was is how my wife felt. While I don't consider myself a Shakespeare scholar, I am somewhat immersed in his work as I've taught five of his plays. I'm also pretty familiar with quite a few more, and I've been known to read one here and there just to increase my familiarity with the canon. My wife, however, likes his stuff, and goes to all of these shows with me. She's usually the one who takes the time to make sure that we have our tickets, and she's always more than willing to see a movie adaptation. So, she definitely likes him, but she doesn't know any of his plays backward and forward like I do with some of them.

What was her reaction to this play then? Exactly the same as mine. She told me that she felt like telling me within the first five minutes, "Damn. This is really good!" She didn't though, but we both looked at each other during intermission and concurred that we were witnessing something really special.

The thing is with Shakespeare is that it doesn't just belong to just the playwright. It also doesn't just belong to him and the fans. It's a collaborative effort, and it lives on with each new production, constantly shifting and adapting over the years. With Cal Shakes's production of King Lear, it once again proves what Ben Jonson said so long ago about the man: "He was not of an age but for all time!"

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Read These Comics! - The Don Rosa Library

In my very first installment of "Read These Comics!" I recommended the Carl Barks Library of Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge collections by Fantagraphics. In short, Carl Barks was known to fans of Disney Duck comics from the late 1940s to the early 1960s as "The Good Duck Artist". He created many memorable characters, most notably Scrooge McDuck.

There is one other "good duck artist" who stands out though, and that's Don Rosa, who did his work from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. Thankfully, for fans like me who are a little late to the party, Fantagraphics is reprinting all of his Disney work as well. The third volume is the most recent release, and even though I'm barely halfway through it, I'm thinking that it's the best of the bunch so far. (I've been reading it out loud with my son, who wants to read nothing but Duck stories before bed lately.)

My introduction to Rosa's works came with a reprint of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck (which I believe will be included in the next Fantagraphics volume). I had fond memories of the character both from some comics I had as a kid and from the old Ducktales cartoon. It was the recommended book of the week at my local comic book store, so I figured I'd give it a try. I wound up being pretty impressed with what a detailed and, ironically enough, human story it turned out to be. So, when I heard about these new collections, I knew that I'd be on board.

For those of you with fond memories of Uncle Scrooge from Ducktales, don't get into this expecting the same thing. In fact, Rosa has a sign that he puts up at conventions and other signings letting people know that it's NOT Ducktales that he's doing. (For instance, don't expect to see Launchpad McQuack.) His work is based on the Barks stories, even having created some sequels to some of them. (Although it should be noted that volume 2 does have the one Ducktales short story that Rosa did, so it's not 100% true to say it's not what he's doing.) However, I'd go so far as to reckon that if you like one, you might like the other. (Rosa himself has said that he liked the cartoon.) They're not the same, but they share a common ancestor. If Ducktales is a bobcat, Rosa's work is a jaguar.

If you've been picking up the various Carl Barks reprints (And why wouldn't you? Pretty sure I recommended it!) then you'll be pleasantly surprised to see that Rosa wasn't merely re-hashing the Barks stuff. While it certainly owes a debt to those comics, he successfully ventures off into new and exciting territory. For one, his stories get really deep into history, and the historical events outside of Duckburg overlap with real-world history, so you wind up learning a little something when Scrooge goes looking for a particular historical artifact. There are also some science lessons that are sprinkled throughout the adventures as well. Barks had his share of real-world lessons, but not nearly to the extent that Rosa takes things.

Rosa's artwork also is different from that of Barks, and the more you read, the more you notice it. Barks was an animator, and that comes through in his drawings, as one panel flows into the next, and you can almost feel the motion between them. Rosa has an engineering background, and that comes through in the amount of detail that he adds in every panel from the elaborate buildings to subtle gags going on in the background. People often write about that aspect of his work, but I've also noticed that there's a real cinematic quality to his work as well, as he'll use large panels to convey scenes of wonder, excitement, and even danger. (A particular shot of the ducks hanging from a cliff in the second volume especially stands out in my mind.)

Rosa is officially retired from doing comic books, and he has cited that one of the reasons why is how Disney treats its artists. In a nutshell, Disney doesn't publish its own comics, and various publishers pay the artists for the work that they do. However, it all winds up belonging to Disney, so it can be reprinted by other publishers without any royalties being paid to the artists - even when the artist's name is being used to promote the reprints! (As has happened to Rosa.) I think that it's safe to say that Rosa is making a bit of money off of these volumes though, as he's providing a lot of original text pieces for each one, including an introduction, detailed story notes, and a "Life and Times of Don Rosa" biography that continues from volume to volume. In those text pieces, you'll find the man to be one of the most self-deprecating artists out there, and if that was all you read, you'd think that the art would consist of a bunch of scribbles and stick figures. Maybe he's seeing something that I'm not, but I'm glad to be missing it, as I think that he's not only producing some exciting stories but some really great drawings as well. This is an example of the medium at its finest, and Rosa will take his place among the greats.

I have a feeling that I'm not the only long-time comic book reader who missed Rosa's work the first time around. While I never looked down upon any particular genre of comic books, I was primarily interested in superhero comics while he was doing his thing. (That's probably still true.) I suppose that as an American I have more of an excuse, as the man was more appreciated in Europe. (I hear he's treated like a rock star in Finland, believe it or not.) However, maybe it's not so bad of a thing, as Rosa has also explained in the text pieces that Fantagraphics is printing many of these stories as they should have been printed in the first place, the originals being plagued with bad coloring and other issues from publishers that didn't really understand comics. Also, these volumes are printed in a larger format than your standard comic, which helps with artwork that's as detailed as Rosa's. Perhaps it was worth the wait, and for me, it's even more fun to experience these stories with my son.

You can read about the time I met Rosa at the Big Wow Comicfest in San Jose here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Understanding the believer and the nonbeliever

I've pointed out before that one of the frustrating things about being an atheist is having people tell you what you think. I've heard so many believers, from fundamentalist Christians to "spiritual" agnostics, explain what my point of view is only to get it spectacularly wrong on every occasion. It's getting to the point where I'm honestly of the mindset that once one is able to accurately and honestly articulate what atheism is, one has become an atheist.

The strange thing to me is that theists often turn atheism into something much bigger and complex than it actually is. Even when you flat-out say that all it means is a lack of belief, it needs to turn into something far more than that. It's frustrating, but it's understandable. With that said, it's my sincere hope that this blog entry will serve as advice to both the theist and the atheist when engaging in these debates.

When trying to talk to theists, it's really tempting to explain atheism by saying that it's the same as not believing in werewolves, leprechauns, The Smurfs, etc. We don't believe in any of those things, but we'd be convinced with evidence of their existence, and the same goes for any God or gods that might exist. This seems like a really easy and accurate analogy, but it doesn't work for the theist. 

And why should it? None of those beliefs carry the same history as the world's major religions do. Nobody bases their entire life philosophy on those beliefs either. People who believe in God claim to have a personal relationship with their deity. It's not like even like believing in other supernatural beings that actually do have a significant number of people accept like ghosts. To say that God doesn't exist would be to deny something that they would claim to know to be true - not just believe. It's something that affects their very identity.

So, to make an analogy with leprechauns comes off as ridiculous because a belief in God is not like a belief in leprechauns - AT ALL. I would hope that any atheist can see this and understand why a theist would bridle at the suggestion.

But here's the thing, and I imagine that most atheists reading this by now would have already caught what's going on here. And this is what I'm hoping that the believer will understand when this point is brought up:

To the believer, a belief in God is nothing like a belief in (insert supernatural being here). However, to the nonbeliever, the nonbelief is exactly the same.

What gets lost in the discussion is that the believer is talking about something that's more than just a belief to them while to the nonbeliever, that doesn't matter. However, the believer thinks that it absolutely should matter, and that's why it's not right for the atheist to be so dismissive. I'm not entirely sure what the resolution to this should be, as while I understand both sides, I ultimately think that the atheist is under no obligation to grant religious belief more weight simply because of the importance of the belief to the theist. Perhaps it's a reason to at least treat the believer with some sympathy and not just go for the jugular, but the burden of proof always lies on the person making the claim of something's existence, not on the person who doubts it. To suggest that it's somehow different when it comes to a belief in God is to elevate the theist position based on reasons that nobody would accept for anything else. 

Because what if belief in leprechauns DID become as important to people as belief in God? Would that affect the belief's legitimacy one way or the other? I would suggest not, and I think that most honest theists would agree with me there.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Where are the female superheroes?

While it remains to be seen whether my son will inherit my love for superhero comics, like most little boys, he has a lot of superhero stuff, including toys, a bedspread, and a couple of backpacks. That's pretty cool, but there's one thing that I can't help but notice.

On his Avengers bed spread, which features the team from the movie, Black Widow is nowhere to be seen.

On his Justice League backpack, you won't find Wonder Woman anywhere. There also isn't a pair devoted to her with his set of Justice League underwear. Sure, he has Aquaman underwear, but no Wonder Woman underwear. And no, I'm not expecting them to throw a pair of girl's underwear in there. You can have boy's underwear with a female character on it, can't you?

I find this troubling as both a father and as a fan of superheroes. I'll be the first to acknowledge that when it comes to representing women, comics haven't always done a great job. (Although I'd argue that things have been improving quite a bit lately with the current Black Widow, Batgirl, Starfire, Captain Marvel, etc. comics out there nowadays.) Female superheroes have always been outnumbered by their male counterparts, and this is always clear when it comes to superhero teams. Things were really bad back in the 1950s when it was Wonder Woman's job to act as secretary for the Justice League, and although that sort of a thing fell by the wayside, there were also bad periods, especially in the 90s, where the female heroes were there more to pose like porn stars than serve the story.

Like everything, there are exceptions, and it seemed like for a while there that things were starting to go in the right direction. The Justice League cartoon of the early 2000s at least featured two female heroes (with Hawkgirl joining) and then Justice League unlimited allowed for more of them to get the spotlight, like Black Canary, Supergirl, The Huntress, etc. I know that Teen Titans Go! had some popularity as well, with 2/5 of the team being female.

I should also point out that the X-Men comics have long been a good exception when it comes to representing female heroes. The above image is from issue #218 of The Uncanny X-Men, which featured a story with a small team of X-Men going up against one of their most dangerous foes, the unstoppable Juggernaut. The team consisted of three women and only one man. I was only in seventh grade back then, but I remember loving that story. I was big on the X-Men in general, and the team frequently featured more than its fair share of heroic women. I never associated it to be a girl's comic as a result - nor did I think that of its offshoot Excalibur, which had a female to male ratio of three to two. (Unless you count Kitty Pryde's pet dragon, I guess.)

One thing that I've been realizing lately as comics and superheroes have gone more mainstream is that there isn't anything inherently "for boys" about them. Traditionally they've been geared toward boys, but you see a lot more girls getting into them, and I've found myself talking comics with my female students as much as my male students lately.

This is why it's so troubling that these superhero products seem to leave out the women entirely. They've already gotten short shrift (with a few exceptions) and now they're being ignored all together?

I wonder where the problem really is. Is it that the people behind the decisions feel that boys won't want the backpacks/underwear/blankets if there's even one woman on them? Are they just out of touch? More likely, I'm afraid, is that they have good reason to think that sales will fall if the women are included. And if that's the case, the problem is much worse than I imagine.

I'm not sure how my son would react if Wonder Woman was included on his backpack. There have been times when both my wife and I have had to correct him when he said things about what "girls" supposedly can't do. He obviously doesn't hear that from us, but the message of female limitation definitely gets through to him, so we have to work at damage control. I pointed out to him the issue of Wonder Woman, and he didn't seem too concerned about it, but he also didn't act like it would be a problem if the Amazonian Princess was there next to Batman, Superman, The Flash, and Green Lantern.

I know that there's a lot of talk about feminism nowadays, and a lot of people like to attach meanings to it that don't really jive with my understanding of it. To me, it's all about treating people equally, but we use the term "feminist" to acknowledge that generally speaking it's women who aren't being regarded as full equals. While a superhero backpack might not be the most important fight along these lines, it's certainly a symptom of a problem.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Batman and the brain

I haven't finished this week's stack of comics yet, but one of them has made an impression on me since finishing them. It's not every week that I get even one that does that, so this has been pretty special.

I'm talking about issue #43 of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's excellent run on Batman. The current storyline began in the aftermath of an epic confrontation with Batman and The Joker, resulting in the apparent death of Batman. Gotham City has decided that it can't be without the Caped Crusader though, so Commissioner Gordon now patrols the streets as a new armored Batman. Oh, and it turns out that Bruce Wayne is very much alive, and he's doing charity work. The most recent issue reveals why he hasn't returned in his role as the city's resident superhero.


It turns out that he did die, only to be brought back to life (don't worry about the process). As his brain was healed, the pathways didn't come back together in entirely the same way. All of the details are explained in a conversation between Wayne's trusty butler, Alfred, and Clark Kent (yeah - Superman). Clark points out that it's not "really" Bruce anymore, as his brain isn't entirely the same. One tangible result was that he no longer remembered his life as Batman. Of course, Alfred informed him about his past and his motivation for being a hero - the murder of his parents. 

And while Bruce certainly felt something, the pain was no longer there. In other words, the very thing that motivated him to become Batman - the aspect of his personality that made him who he was - was gone. That's why he's no longer patrolling the streets in the Batmobile. He's still the same good man, but the drive is gone.

I kept thinking about this idea, even though it's one that's been on my mind before. One of the reasons I have a hard time getting behind the idea of an afterlife is that so much of who we are is dependent on what's going on physically in our skulls. Get a serious head injury or a disease like Alzheimer's, and you won't seem like the same person to all of your friends and family anymore. What reason would we think that our personalities would somehow remain intact when our brains are completely non-functional and even decomposed?

I've heard religious apologists go on about how meaningless life must be if all we are is determined by the physical and chemical processes of the brain. All this tells us though is what they think, not what's real or not. Because what if that is what makes us who we are? Are we going to just completely give up and become nihilists because we're the product of a natural and physical process? I don't think so.

So, is Bruce Wayne still the same person when he's no longer motivated by what drove him his entire life? He's similar in many ways, but is it really him? If you remove the parts of my brain that make me love my family, get excited about comic books, want to write in my blog - is that still me? I'm not sure how much can change and have me still be me, but I know that if you change enough, eventually we can no longer say that we're dealing with the same Lance Christian Johnson.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Or Shakes - Antony and Cleopatra

Yeah, I don't think anybody calls the Oregon Shakespeare Festival "Or Shakes" but I'm starting it here. Usually I attend plays put on by the California Shakespeare Festival, but this year my wife and I made a special trip up to Ashland, Oregon to see Antony and Cleopatra. It's a play that I had never read before, although I was familiar with the principle characters from history, HBO's Rome, and even Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

As usual, I read about two-thirds of the play before seeing it, just to familiarize myself with the basic story before viewing the play. I didn't feel compelled to read the whole thing for the simple fact that Shakespeare was not a novelist, and he wrote his plays with the intention of having them be performed. Personally, I don't think that I ever really enjoy reading one of his plays on the first go-round. I usually wind up liking it after seeing it on stage (or a good movie adaptation). Teaching his works also brings about a deep appreciation for me.

So, here are some things that struck me about the play in general and this production in particular:

1. Oregon must have a larger budget than Cal Shakes. With my local Shakespeare festival, actors often double, even triple, up on parts, as they don't cast a different person for each role. This is usually not a problem, but I've been confused a couple of times when viewing a play that I didn't know that well. Up in Oregon, I'm pretty sure each actor only played one part. This was especially helpful when it came to some of the important characters who aren't the well-known figures of history. I was having a hard time keeping track of the soldiers and servants while doing my crash-course in the play, but it wasn't an issue when I knew them by the way they looked.

Octavian Caesar and his sister, Octavia
2. This tragedy doesn't follow the same pattern as the ones that I know well - Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. While Antony certainly has a fatal flaw while retaining some honor, it doesn't lead to a progressive bodycount the way those other plays do. In fact, it didn't seem like that many people died at all. (Not a complaint - just an observation.)

3. Mark Antony is an interesting character, and Derek Lee Weedon was just the guy to portray him.
He's a guy torn between two worlds, and even though he's a military genius who commands the respect of his soldiers, he'd probably rather have a good time and party. The man probably could have been the first official Roman Emperor if not for his passions. I also really liked the fact that in this production he was noticeably older than the other two members of the Second Triumvirate - Octavian Caesar and Lepidus. I felt as though if he were a younger man, he would have easily been the one to come out on top among the three, but being older he was lacking the proper ambition and liked the idea of settling down.  Like I said, Weedon did a great job, and I could really feel the inner turmoil of the man.

4. I guess I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Cleopatra in all of this. I'm not sure that I have anything original to say about her, but both in Shakespeare's text and the performance of Miriam A. Laube, there's never a moment where you'd doubt why she'd be so alluring for Mark Antony. Yeah, the guy could rule what was essentially the known world, but it's easy to see why she's more appealing - especially to a guy like Antony. And don't get me wrong, she's not just a plot device to distract him. She's a fully-realized character who owns every scene she's in, and one wonders what she could have accomplished if she didn't live in such a patriarchal system.

That just about covers it. Overall, I'm really glad that I went, and while I have no intention of abandoning Cal Shakes, I think that making the effort to go up to Oregon more often will be well worth it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Sincere questions for the "Just Label It!" crowd

I've written a few blog posts about GMOs now, having started about a year ago. I think that my best post was on the scientific consensus, as I think I did a good job appealing to those who accept things like climate change, evolution, etc. Since then, I realize that I was just a small part in a significant shift in the conversation, and more and more people are starting to accept that there isn't anything inherently bad about the technology. (Perhaps the most comprehensive overview came out recently on Slate's website.)

If you're against GMOs, or you think that they're inherently dangerous, then this post is not for you. Instead, I would like to address those who still feel that GMOs should be labeled even though they're not inherently dangerous. The reason why is that while I'm seeing less hysteria about GMOs being bad, I still see a lot of people who still don't understand why they can't be labeled. In my opinion, I'm against it, and either my reasoning is sound or somebody out there can show me where I've gone wrong and convince me otherwise. (Honestly, I've flip-flopped several times on this issue. What's another flop?)

Let's make one thing clear right from the get-go. The most common argument regarding GMO labeling is the phrase: "We have a right to know what's in our food." This is a completely reasonable position to have. After all, we have ingredient labels and all kinds of information listed on the products that we buy. Why should this be the exception? Again, that's completely reasonable.

Yet I'm still against the GMO label. How can I believe that we have the right to know what's in our food but not believe in labeling them?

Basically, it's because I don't believe that a label reading "GMO" tells us what's in our food. If it did, then I'd be for it, but that doesn't seem to be the case. First of all, GMO is not an ingredient. An ingredient might be a GMO, but GMOs themselves don't mean that an ingredient has been added to the corn (to give one example) the way salt is added to a jar of peanuts.

GMOs are a process, much like artificial selection is a process. As far as I know, we don't label any processes for the food that we consume. Now I realize that you might be rolling your eyes and thinking that I'm obfuscating a bit here. Clearly we're discussing two different things, right? Artificial selection is something we've been doing since the advent of agriculture. GMOs are created in a lab. That's the difference, and that's what the label tells us.

But not quite. Mutagenesis, where plants are subjected to chemicals and radiation, has been around for decades, and they aren't considered to be GMOs. In fact, they can be labeled as organic, unlike GMOs.

Okay, so a GMO label tells us about a process where the genetic structure of a plant is altered in a lab process that isn't mutagenesis. Assuming that you're still okay with this premise, and if you are, I'd really like to know why, we still have a problem, and this, for me, is the biggest one. The following is a list of techniques where genes have been altered in plants that produce food. While reading through it, ask yourself if you can tell which ones are considered GMOs and which ones aren't. (List courtesy of Kavin Senapathy.)

  1. Corn engineered with a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis to express an insecticidal protein. 
  2. Corn created by scientists by crossing genetically homozygous corn genomes, resulting in more robust heterozygous varieties. These are commercialized and sold. 
  3. Watermelon created by crossing a parent with four sets of chromosomes with a parent with two sets. The offspring, with three sets, cannot complete the process of meiosis, rendering it sterile and unable to produce seeds. 
  4. Papaya with a short viral sequence in its genome, allowing it to resist harmful ringspot infection. 
  5. Kiwi created by applying a chemical to induce multiplication of the number of chromosomes (polyploidy) causing the fruit to be larger and more commercially viable. 
  6. Apple created with reduced expression of the enzyme that causes it to turn brown (it will still brown when rotten, but not when bitten.) 
  7. Grapefruit created by exposure to gamma radiation to induce artificial genetic mutations. Those with beneficial mutations are then commercialized and sold.

Now, you might have been able to guess at a couple after my explanation of mutagensis, but if you're really not sure which ones are GMOs (only 1, 4, and 6) then the question is this:

How does a GMO label tell you what's in your food when you don't know what a GMO is?

Please don't think that I'm trying to insult you or get one over on you by pointing out what you don't know. I only got about half of them right myself when I took the quiz. But the point still stands, doesn't it? If not, please, tell me what I'm getting wrong and how the label still informs you.

I once had somebody express to me concern about "Roundup ready" corn and soy, as they're sprayed with glyphosate, which has some people concerned. This was in a discussion where the person was trying to convince me of the wisdom of GMO labeling. But not all GMOs are "Roundup ready". So isn't what's needed, if you think that you need to know that, is a "sprayed with glyphosate" label? And if they're going to label that, then why not also label the other herbicides and pesticides which are potentially as, if not more, harmful?

So, I managed to successfully avoid discussing Monsanto up to this point, but that's always the 800 pound gorilla in the room when discussing this matter, so I guess I'd better get to it.. When California had its GMO labeling initiative on the ballot, the most commonly cited reason (to me) as to why they should be labeled was because big Agri-businesses like Monsanto were paying a lot of money to defeat the measure. This is absolutely true. However, I don't find that to be a compelling reason to be in favor of labels. It certainly is worth considering, but I feel that one can't simply make decisions based on who else is for or against something. After all, Monsanto was awarded as "The Best Place to Work for LGBT Equality" by the Human Rights Campaign. Am I going to change my position on equality for gay people just because Monsanto supports it? Certainly not.

I guess what I'm saying is that even if one accepts the most negative view of Monsanto, it can be agreed that nobody (and no corporation) is wrong 100% of the time. They could be against labels for purely selfish reasons as well, but that doesn't necessarily mean that labels are a good idea.

My last point is that if you STILL think that GMOs should be labeled, they kinda are in a way. At least, there are plenty of products that proudly label themselves as "Non GMO". Also, if it's certified organic, then it's not a GMO. Beyond that, you can educate yourself as to which products are likely to be GMOs and which aren't, and then you'll know which ones to avoid. (I once had a person tell me that he could tell the difference between organic and GMO tomatoes. I thought that was remarkable considering that there aren't any GMO tomatoes on the market.)

If you've stuck with me this long, hopefully you can at least see why I don't understand what a GMO label tells us. It seems to me that it would simply confuse people. Perhaps there is some way to inform consumers more than they already are, and I'm all ears as to what that is, but you're going to have a ways to go in order to convince me that a GMO label is even a good first step.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Death and Gilgamesh

I don't suppose it's all that strange that death has been on my mind a lot lately. I suppose that it's not so strange though, as men in their forties have been said to start coming to grips with their own mortality. Supposedly, we're supposed to go through some sort of midlife crisis or something, and while I don't know if I'm doing that, I am starting to feel a bit different.

When you bring up death to some people, the topic is depressing all on its own. I'm an atheist myself, and I often take note of how some believers will speak of what's in store for them after death. One older lady I knew was a big fan of stories about people who supposedly saw heaven after being temporarily "dead". It gave her some comfort, as she talked about how it made her feel good to know that something wonderful was waiting for her when she graduated from the land of the living. I didn't have the heart (or time, really) to tell her that I didn't believe in any of that. I'm not sure what she would have said in response to it, but I wouldn't be surprised if I'd get that same sad sort of look that other believers have given me when I say that I don't believe in anything beyond this life. I've even been told that supposedly everything is "hopeless" with my point of view.

I don't see it that way though. I'm completely comfortable with the thought that when this life is over, that's all there is to it. I'm not even sure that I'd want to carry on after this. But then why am I thinking about it so much? I'm not sure. Maybe because it seems like more of a real possibility. And now I find myself really drawn to stories where the protagonists make peace with mortality, whether it's going over Hamlet for the billionth time with high school seniors or simply watching The Wolverine yet again.

This brings me to The Epic of Gilgamesh, which features a hero who cannot bear to think that one day his life will be completely over. He loses his most beloved friend, and then he seeks out how to achieve immortality from the one human who was granted the gift from the gods - Utnapishtim. Ultimately, Gilgamesh has to accept that he will one day die, but the ending is not depressing, as the poet reminds us all that what we do while we live carries on beyond our time on Earth. It's done subtly though, because coming to grips with mortality is still a heavy concept to grasp, although it need not be soul-crushing.

I first encountered the epic while in college, and I bought it for an Ancient Epic Tales class. At least, I think that's why I bought it because I don't recall ever having to read it. From there, it remained in my book collection and survived every visit to Half Price Books when I purged my collection, as I figured that I'd eventually get around to reading it. I even attempted it a few times, but familiarizing myself with the Sumerian pantheon seemed like a daunting task, as I already have my head filled with the gods of Greece and Scandinavia, not to mention various comic book and Star Wars characters. (I should note though that fear of learning more gods should not detract anybody from reading this. The story tells you all you need to know about the gods who appear to alter the destiny of Gilgamesh. You don't need to know complex genealogies and histories like you would with The Iliad.)

I finally sat down to read a version of the story when I purchased a graphic novel adaptation by Andrew Winegarner. It's an obvious labor of love on his part, and it makes the story highly accessible to pretty much everybody. I was initially taken aback by a rather explicitly drawn sex scene, but I know my mythology in general well enough to know that ancient peoples didn't necessarily have the hangups that we do today. (And later I would find out that the descriptions in the actual epic are pretty detailed, making the adaptation very appropriate.)

I definitely enjoyed it, and I guess this blog entry doubles as a "Read These Comics!" entry. It does everything that comics do best, and it lets the pictures tell the story when necessary. The artist really manages to capture the action scenes along with the various emotions that this sort of story goes through on its journey through the human experience.

My next encounter with the man who's two thirds divine was the album Gilgamesh by Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda. I suppose that it's a story unto itself as to how I wound up with their CD, but the short version is that I was introduced to them when I watched the documentary Heavy Metal Baghdad. I then followed them on Facebook, and I joined their Kickstarter in order to get a signed copy of their first full-length release, which is named after the ancient hero. Not only that, but the songs are inspired by events in the story as well. I'm not much of a connoisseur of this particular style of growling metal (that's definitely not the right word for it) but I have found myself enjoying it quite a bit. My son, who's four, even asks to hear it in the car, asking for the music "where the guy shouts". 

On several occasions, I've opened up the booklet to have a gander at the lyrics. This kept the Sumerian myth on my mind, and that old dusty copy on my shelf started calling out to me.

However, I didn't read that one. I was curious as to whether there was a new translation that preserved the poetry but also was aimed at a modern audience. That's what you have with Seamus Heaney's Beowulf and Simon Armitage's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. While at the bookstore, I was lucky enough to find Stephen Mitchell's version. Interestingly enough, he's not able to translate the original language of the text, but instead he examined various English translations in order to create his own.

I was really pleased with it. You can just read the poem by itself, or you can read all of his comments in the foreword and the endnotes. It's a pretty breezy read, and that's not just because of the epic's relatively short length. (It's amazing how it's so much shorter than works like The Odyssey or even Beowulf, but it feels just as sprawling and just as, well...epic.)

When I finished reading it, I had a stack of other things to read before I finally went to sleep for the night. It wasn't that late, but I just felt like I needed to go to bed and let it all sink in. While Winegarner's graphic novel pretty much spells out the moral for you at the end, Mitchell's poetry is more subtle, but ultimately more powerful. (Although I do worry that I might have been too dense to understand it if I hadn't already read Winegarner's.) 

Mitchell makes use of ending the story right where it begins. At first the reader is invited to "look" at the wonders of Gilgamesh - the city, the palace, the orchards, etc. At the end, when Gilgamesh fails in his quest to attain mortality, we are brought right back to this place. He may be gone, but yet he remains, and he does so because of his accomplishments. He starts the story as an oppressive brute of a king, but he ends having become fully human, despite his divine heritage. And the main reason he's able to do so is his friendship with Enkidu, a wild man who was more beast than human until a woman showed him the art of love making. Through Enkidu, we see the loss of innocence. Through the relationship with Gilgamesh, we are reminded of our humble origins. Through the loss of Enkidu and the quest of Gilgamesh, we are reminded of how precious it all is.

I hear people talk about an afterlife. Sometimes they say that there "has to be more to life than this" as though "this" just isn't impressive enough for them. They'll sometimes get condescending and act like I'm missing something, as though my life must be a state of hopelessness and cynicism. If only I could get them to see things through my eyes. I realize that it might sound like from the beginning of this blog entry that I'm dwelling on it, but that's not it at all. Dwelling implies to me that I'm spending time with an unwelcome thought. And while it's not true that I'm eagerly looking forward to death, I have no fear of it. I don't worry for a moment about what it will be like, so stories of a glorious, happy place hold no appeal to me.

Part of this acceptance is also possible because I feel pretty happy with my life. I feel like I've done some good. As a teacher, I've had students and former students tell me what my class has meant to them. Does it affect every student that deeply? No. But if I only have a few of them, then that's something. I'll never build cities like Gilgamesh, but the good that I have done carries on even when my name is forgotten. I also have a son, and I have so much more good left to do as far as I'm concerned when it comes to him. I also think that my marriage has many good years left ahead of it.

Ancient people weren't so different from us. The brilliant thing is that they have their ways of reaching out to us and letting us know how to deal with the issues that trouble us. For me, The Epic of Gilgamesh teaches us to accept our lot in life and enjoy what we have.
Shiduri said, "Gilgamesh, where are you roaming?
You will never find the eternal life
that you seek. When the gods created mankind,
they also created death, and they held back
eternal life for themselves alone.
Humans are born, they live, then they die,
this is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Svor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.

- from Stephen Mitchell's translation

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Ant-Man - Movie Review

I don't think that the world was crying out for an Ant-Man movie so much as Marvel Studios has been on such a winning streak that audiences are still hungry for more. As for me, I found this to be a decent entry, but it doesn't exactly rank among my favorites. I should note that my wife said that it was one of her favorites though, and she eagerly attends all of these movies with me while not being as big of a fan of superheroes as me.

As usual, the folks at Marvel Studios know what they're doing. If you've enjoyed all of the other Avengers-related movies, you'll probably like this one as well. You have good characterizations for the hero and his supporting cast, and there are plenty of great action scenes that get supplemented with some special effects that feel pretty fresh. (That's probably the one thing that this movie really has going for it.) You'll also get carefully placed references to the other movies and the greater Marvel Universe that aren't distracting for the non-superfans but get us comic geeks pretty excited.

Anyway, there really isn't much that I can say that they did wrong. Some of the comic relief bordered on being a bit much, but just when I worried that it was going to be over-the-top, they reigned it in a little. With that said, here are some random thoughts:

Paul Rudd - Casting Rudd as the Scott Lang version of Ant-Man was a good start. He's a charismatic actor, and while he normally does comedy, he's believable as an everyman action hero. I've always liked him, and he's probably the key reason why I Love You, Man is one of my favorite comedies.

Hank Pym Versus Scott Lang - The movie takes a lot of liberties with the story of Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, but it's clear that the screenwriters were well-versed in their Marvel Comics mythology. Even if certain characters and events didn't happen exactly the same way as they did in the comics, there were plenty of references to keep fans happy. (In other words, fans of The Wasp won't be completely disappointed.) As for Scott Lang's character, I've been reading the recent Ant-Man series (which is really good) and it really rang true to me. He's a former crook with a heart of gold, and he wants to do right by his daughter. Excellent.

Evangeline Lily - There's a lot of talk about how these superhero movies treat their female characters, and no doubt some people will wish that she could have had a greater role. Still, I think that she serves a definite purpose in the story, and she's hardly a generic love interest. Also, a pretty solid reason is given why she doesn't strap on a shrinking suit herself. Hopefully there will be a sequel, as there is hope that she'll get to do even more. (Or maybe even in the next Avengers movie.)

More Ant-Man in other movies - Again, hiring Paul Rudd was a good choice. He'll definitely present an interesting dynamic with all of the other assembled Avengers. I'd really like to see him interact with Robert Downey, Jr.'s Tony Stark.

So, there ya have it. If you are familiar with what superhero movies come specifically from Marvel Studios (as opposed to originating in Marvel Comics) then you probably have a pretty good idea of what to expect. If you've liked all of the others, you'll no doubt like this one as well. As to whether you rank it as a lesser or greater entry, that will depend on you.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Thoughts on All-New, All-Different Marvel

When I went to my local comics shop this week, I was given a free preview catalog of all the new Marvel titles that are going to be launched after the Secret Wars event is over. Since I wrote about the DC New 52 before it launched, I thought I'd do something similar for Marvel's "not a reboot". 

A few things upfront here though - I haven't read Secret Wars and with the exception of The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows, I haven't been picking up any of the related titles. I like to keep my blog positive, so I'm not going to complain about the whole thing, but suffice it to say it just didn't interest me at all. I like crossovers with a simple but interesting premise. With this one, I wasn't sure what was happening or why any of it ultimately mattered. Lately, I've been more interested in what's going on with Image, IDW, and Boom! Studios

I am a Marvel guy though. I started on Marvel Comics when I was twelve, and I probably didn't pick up any DC for another couple of years. (I'm not sure when I started picking up stuff from other publishers, but it wasn't too long after that.) Since then, with a few exceptions (like lately) I usually pick up more Marvel than anything else.

So, here's what I'm looking forward and/or am curious about in the upcoming relaunch. (And you can click here if you want to see the entire list.)

Invincible Iron Man - Even though I consider the first Iron Man movie to be one of the best comic book adaptations of all time, I don't have a whole lot of Iron Man comics. I've picked up some here and there, but with Brian Michael Bendis writing this series, I'm going to at least check out the first few issues. He's written too many of my favorite comics over the years for me to not do so, as I loved all of his Avengers stuff along with his X-Men books. (Couldn't get into Guardians of the Galaxy though.)

All New All Different Avengers - I picked up the preview issue on Free Comic Book Day and enjoyed it well enough. What really has me sold is, once again, the writer; although this time it's Mark Waid. He's really on a role lately, with his Daredevil run along with some creator owned stuff like Strange Fruit, Empire, and Insufferable. This also looks like an interesting team with the Miles Morales Spider-Man and the new Ms. Marvel on board.

Dr. Strange - The Master of the Mystic Arts is going to have his profile raised a bit with the movie in the works, so that's probably why they got one of their best writers, Jason Aaron, on board this title. I'm following pretty much everything he does, having recommended both his Thor and Southern Bastards on this blog. Chris Bachalo is also an interesting choice on art.

The Mighty Thor - As I mentioned above, I've already recommended Jason Aaron's previous work on the character, so there's no reason why I wouldn't stick around. I suppose that the big reveal as to the female Thor's identity is out of the bag by now, so I'll just say that I really like the idea of Jane Foster's dilemma. She's a goddess when she picks up that hammer, but being a goddess makes the cancer that she has in her human form kill her faster.

Ant Man - Nick Spencer really knows how to write losers, as he proved with Superior Foes of Spider-Man. Scott Lang isn't quite in that ballpark, but he definitely has the world against him, and he often screws up. I really dug the first round of comics that Spencer wrote with the character, so if he's sticking around, then so am I.

The Amazing Spider-Man / Spider-Man - I'm a die-hard fan of the web-head, whether he's Peter Parker or Miles Morales. I've written before about why I have no problem with the two Spideys inhabiting the same universe, so I'll be sticking around.

Spider-Woman - I picked up the first few issues of the last series when it tied into the Spider-Verse crossover event, and then I stopped reading it. Apparently I've missed something good. And now Jessica Drew is pregnant? That should be interesting. I'll pick up the first issue at least.

Spider-Man 2099 - If Peter David is writing the adventures of Miguel O'Hara, the Spider-Man of the future, then I'm on board. I recently re-read the original series and enjoyed the heck out of it. Good to see there's still a place for him in the crowded Spider-Man landscape.

Daredevil - I give pretty much every creative team a try when it comes to Matt Murdock. I've enjoyed some of Charles Soule's writing before, so I'll give this a shot.

All New X-Men - It looks like they're sticking with the time-displaced original members of the X-Men. Maybe they're not time-displaced anymore? I'll check out the first issue at least.

That's all I've got. Anything else I should look at?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

An Honest Liar - Movie Review

I got excited when I switched on Netflix last night to see that An Honest Liar was available to stream. It's a documentary featuring one of my personal heroes, James Randi. I've written about his role in my journey from theist to skeptic/atheist before, so he's obviously an important person to me. I've read most of his books, and I saw the old NOVA special that featured him, so I did have some concern that it was merely going to tell me stuff that I already knew. While there certainly was some overlap, I was really impressed with the insights given into the master debunker/magician's life.

If you've never heard of James Randi, he started off as a magician, and he had made several television appearances as "The Amazing Randi" going back to the mid 1950s. By the 1970s, he started to become famous for being a master debunker. It all started with so-called "psychic" Uri Geller, who could supposedly bend spoons with his mind (although he suspiciously always needed to have them in his hands). Randi showed that he could duplicate all of Geller's feats using pure magician's trickery. From there, he went on to debunk psychic surgeons, dowsers, faith healers, etc., even offering a one million dollar prize to anybody who could demonstrate paranormal/psychic phenomenon under proper test conditions. (Many have tried, nobody has succeeded.)

Anybody who knows me can see why this man is one of my heroes. I love a good debunking, and while it's probably not an admirable trait, I enjoy bursting people's bubbles. (This is why I would just LOVE IT if global warming was a big hoax, but as a proper skeptic, I have to go with the evidence and admit that it's happening.)

Without spoiling any specifics of the movie, here are the things that I found enlightening:

1. Exposing somebody as a fraud doesn't ruin their careers. There are several cases, including the time Randi ensured that Geller wasn't going to be able to use any magician's tricks on The Tonight Show, which resulted in Geller failing miserably and making excuses as to why he couldn't perform his "psychic" feats.

There was also the time that Randi exposed Peter Popoff, a supposed faith-healer who seemed to be getting messages directly from God, only to have it turn out to be Popoff's wife talking to him through a wireless set.

In both cases, if we lived in a world that made sense, both of those men would have seen the end of their careers. And while their stars faded a bit, they still managed to continue on selling their snake oil to the masses.

The sad truth that Randi had to learn - as did I - is that most people don't really want to know what's true. If you ask them, they'll say that they do, but if somebody wants to believe something, nothing will stop them from believing it, and they'll keep finding excuses as to why they should keep believing it.

This is something that has taken me until fairly recently to make peace with. I remember when I read Randi's book, Flim Flam!, which exposed all kinds of frauds; I lent it out to a relative. I'm not even sure if that person read it, because she insisted that she wanted to believe in the things he debunked. For me, when I find out that I might be genuinely wrong about something, I want to know. And when I find out that I am wrong, I want to tell everybody about it. The assumption that I had to get over is thinking that everybody else cares, but they don't.

2. We get to learn about Randi's personal life. I had never known this until he came out a few years ago, but Randi is a gay man and has been living with his partner (now spouse, as the two were legally married) for the past couple decades. Their relationship takes up a fairly large portion of the film, as it turns out that Jose Alvarez, Randi's spouse, was convicted of identity theft. It's ironic in many ways considering that Randi is a man who's devoted to exposing the truth. And it's doubly interesting because Jose was a part of one of Randi's biggest tricks, where Alvarez pretended to be able to channel a spirit and managed to fool many people before revealing that it was all a hoax.

There's a really contentious scene in the movie where Randi seems like, in at least one aspect of his life, that he was more of a liar than an "honest liar". This didn't bother me, as I never think of my personal heroes as being perfect, and I know that everybody can be dishonest in the right situation. Still, by the time it's all over, Randi comes out as once again being the most honest guy who's really good at lying.

3. Uri Geller is interviewed. - This really surprised me. At first I thought that it might be some archival footage, but it seems pretty clear that he was interviewed just for the documentary. I tell ya, the most talented writer in the world couldn't create a more fitting character foil for James Randi than Uri Geller. The two of them really are flip sides of the same coin, and you get a great sense of that in the Geller interviews. It actually made me despise Geller a little less as a human being, but I still think that what he did was pretty deplorable.

Overall, it was a pretty moving film, and it wasn't shy about delving into the potential problems when it comes to debunking miraculous claims. Randi is often the mastermind, and he employs others to go about tricking people only to later reveal that it's all a trick. It's a bit easier for him to be behind the scenes of the whole thing, but it's harder for his accomplices when they have to actually deliberately deceive their fellow human beings.

People don't like being tricked, and most of us like to think that we're too smart for that sort of a thing. Perhaps the first step is to convince people that no matter how smart you are, you can be fooled. From there, we need to get people to value truth, which is easier said than done. At least we have guys like James Randi to help show us the way.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Obi Wan solo film?

For those who like Star Wars but haven't been paying too much attention, there are going to be a whole lot more movies. Sure, you probably know that there's going to be Episodes VII-IX, but there are also going to be a series of "anthology" films, which will tell various stories that take place throughout the galaxy that aren't part of the main story. So far, they've announced that there will be a Han Solo movie (starring a different actor than Harrison Ford, no doubt) and one entitled Rogue One, which will tell the story of how those rebels got their hands on the Death Star plans in the first place.

Some might say that they're milking the franchise. I say - so what? Even when Episode IV came out decades ago, there were hints at a very large canvas of potential stories. Various comic books and TV shows have taken advantage of that, so why not some movies? The potential is there, so why not go for it?

Anyway, by the time you read this, it might already be confirmed, but one of the rumored anthology movies is one featuring Obi Wan Kenobi. If this is going to be reality, then it's safe to assume that Ewan McGregor, who played him in the prequel trilogy, will once again play the Jedi Master. For starters, it's likely that it would take place between the two trilogies, so he'd be the right age to play the part. Even more importantly, the actor himself stated that he'd be glad to do it again.

I would really like to see this happen. Yeah, we all know that the prequels had their problems, but one of those problems certainly wasn't McGregor. He was merely decent in the first one, but he really owned the role in Revenge of the Sith. Some highlights would include his "Hello there!" while confronting General Grievous and how he actually managed to squeak out some pathos when he revealed to Padme that her husband was a murderer.

There is also a lot of potential for stories with this character. Twenty years pass between the two trilogies. Is he really just hanging out, snooping on Owen and Beru to make sure that they're being decent parents? How does he know so much about Sandpeople? Seems like he's probably had a confrontation or two with them there - perhaps we can learn a little bit more as to what they're all about. It's also possible that some other surviving Jedi have sought him out. Perhaps he had to go off world a time or two as there to deal with an impending threat? The galaxy is a big place, and lots of stuff seems to happen on Tatooine. And hey, is there any significance to the name "Ben"?

What's even more interesting is that in the upcoming Star Wars comic, they're going to be getting into some of those missing years of Obi Wan. In case you didn't know, it's all official canon now, and the movies and comics all share the same continuity (along with the novels and TV shows). I'm looking forward to that issue, but I doubt that it's going to cover all 20 years. Certainly there's room for many stories featuring that "old wizard".