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".

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Teaching religion at a public school

She quoted The Bible? BURN HER!!!
Did you hear the news? They've announced the plot to God's Not Dead 2. For those of you who don't know the first one, it basically featured a heroic Christian defeating a strawman. The plot for the second one promises more unwarranted persecution complexes and strawmen (straw-women?) so Christians can feel not only that they're right but that everyone who doesn't believe what they believe either secretly DOES believe what they do and/or is a horrible person.

This plot interests me a little bit more than the first, although I don't think that I'll be able to bear to actually watch it. This one features a high school teacher getting sued for making a Bible reference. That gets my attention because I happen to be a high school teacher who makes a hell of a lot of Bible references.

If I had things my way, I'd be teaching a comparative religions class. Maybe I can eventually make that happen, but as of right now I'm simply an English teacher. I teach both freshmen and seniors, and while I hardly mention The Bible with the freshmen, I do a lesson on it with the seniors. In fact, I cover a lot of religious topics simply because it comes up in so much of the literature that we read: Beowulf, Siddhartha, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and more provide me with the opportunity to cover Norse paganism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. And let's not forget the Biblical allusions in Macbeth and Hamlet. Essentially, religion is the foundation of much of literature in general, and The Bible plays an especially big part in all of that.

Now, I've never been sued, although I once had an anonymous parent complain to the administration, insisting that I apologize for one of my lessons. (The administration took my side, and while they related what was said to me, there was no direction given to me about apologizing.) From what I gather, one of the biggest points of contention was that I told the class that I am an atheist. I do this because I want to let them know where I stand so they can suss out any bias that they might detect. Apparently it's bad for me to even say that, I guess.

Hopefully the sequel can also offer rebuttals
to complaints that nobody makes.
The other problem was an exercise I call "Bible or Crap" where I give a bunch of passages and the students have to determine whether it's a Bible quote or a bunch of crap that I made up. The results are funny sometimes, as I include messed up passages from The Bible that they don't expect to be in there, and once they think they've figured out that everything horrible is from The Bible, I throw them off with a passage where Jesus strangles a puppy. (Spoiler alert - that's crap I made up.) When I conclude the lesson, I point out that I have provided no context for any of the passages I gave them and if they care to know what it all means, they have to read those parts for themselves. So, it's an exercise in how people can pull things out of context to further their own agendas, and it concludes with me encouraging them to read The Bible. I guess that's bad, 'cause I use the word "crap" - even though the "crap" is the stuff that's NOT The Bible.

I wasn't even upset about the whole thing though. I just wished that the parent and/or student could have come to talk to me. I'm not interested in making my students feel marginalized or uncomfortable, and I've had plenty of Christian kids get a kick out of that particular exercise. In fact, when I posted about this story on Facebook, some of the comments defending my lessons came from Christian kids. One even said that it made his "blood boil" to think that they wanted me to apologize. Oh well, can't please everybody.

Anyway, with all of that said, here are some things that I've noticed. Obviously, I'm only one teacher, and even if I did the same thing in a different part of the country, I might have a completely different experience with this. For the record, I live and teach in the San Francisco Bay Area, in an area that's probably more conservative than S.F. or Berkeley, but is still pretty liberal. So, here goes:

1. You have to start by clearing up some misconceptions. - I blame people on the right and the left equally for this, but too many people think that you're not even allowed to discuss religion and The Bible in a public school. I always point out that I can teach about it all I want; I just cannot preach for or against it.

2. Religious affiliation doesn't necessarily affect the attitudes of the students. - I have had Christian, atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. students who have reacted really positively to my lessons. One Muslim student this last year even told me that my lessons affected him in a profound way. I've had atheist/agnostic students tell me that they appreciated getting to learn about all of this stuff without having it preached to them. Believe it or not, I've had Christian students tell me that I made them want to get more serious about their faith and go back to church. (Dammit! Just kidding. Kinda.)

Likewise, I have all kinds of students who react extremely negatively toward it. Oftentimes these attitudes come from the nonbelievers, as they don't even want to hear about religion. I can talk about Odin and Zeus all I want, but if I get into things that people actually believe to this day, I'm placing too great of a burden on them. I guess they figure that they might accidentally convert if they hear the word "Jesus" enough times. However, I get this attitude from believers as well. I've had Christians ask me when we're finally going to be done with it. Sometimes it's clear because I introduce a lot of ideas that they don't normally hear in church, and there's probably a lot of cognitive dissonance going on when I discuss Jesus in the same terms as I would Hercules.

This makes me think that maybe it's not so much a question of theists versus atheists in this country, but we seem to have a lot of apatheists. Some people just want to believe or disbelieve what they want, and they don't want to talk about it or even think about it any more.

3. The best compliments aren't compliments. - I had a student complain about my Bible test because it was hard. She informed me that she used to go to a private Christian school, and there they simply told her what to believe. "But with you, you're always saying that some people think this, and some people think that." Excellent.

Of course I hate Jesus! He's not the real son of Zeus like me!
4. I can be subtly subversive - I really try and bend over backwards to not offend anybody, and whenever I say something like how there are a growing number of scholars who doubt that Jesus was even a historical figure, I make sure to tag on something like, "But you shouldn't just believe that because I've said it." Still, I can do subtle things like how on the test I have a multiple choice question asking them to circle which story is NOT in The Bible. I then list off some of the more absurd ones - like Samson losing his super strength with a haircut and Jonah getting swallowed by a "whale". The one that's NOT in The Bible is an nearly-invincible man who's killed when he gets hit in his only weak spot - his heel. (That's Achilles I'm talking about.) Anyway, there's nothing wrong with the question, but it is fun to put the Achilles story in the same context as a bunch of other obvious myths just to highlight how they're all pretty absurd if you believe they literally happened.

5. They still don't learn a damn thing. - I'm probably not giving myself credit, but it's amazing how even after beating them over the head with my particular pet peeves, they still get it wrong. One example is how I'll still hear students talk about Catholicism and Christianity as though they're two completely different religions. I practically yell at them that Catholicism is one form of Christianity, just as beagles are one breed of dog. All Catholics are Christians, but not all Christians are Catholic. Yet, I'll still hear them say, "Yeah, he's Catholic, unlike me, as I'm Christian." Ugh.

Another example was just from this year when I had a student visit a synagogue as part of a "cultural excursion" project. In his presentation, he talked about how Jesus is important to the Jewish faith. I nearly plotzed.

I even had a former student share on her Facebook wall a meme about how The Bible isn't allowed to be read in public schools. I practically lost my mind. I commented, wondering how she could post that when she did an entire Bible lesson in my class. She then sheepishly suggested that I was trying to make her "feel small". Ugh. No. I just wonder why the hell I bother doing anything sometimes.

So, that's what I've got. Any other teachers out there have similar experiences?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Miles Morales and Sam Wilson

I have to admit that I've been pretty disinterested in Marvel's current Secret Wars crossover. It feels like it could have been more properly titled Back to the Well as it's essentially about revisiting older stories. I'm usually not such a naysayer, and I've enjoyed most of what Marvel's been doing since Civil War, but I haven't been picking up a whole lot of Marvel books since this story has started.

Anyway, I'm a bit more interested in what's going on after this is all over. Marvel has announced a bunch of new titles, and some of them look pretty cool. For people who have been away from the Marvel Universe for a while, it'll seem like a whole lot has changed, even those most of these changes were in place before the big Secret Wars event. For one, there's a female Thor. This series continues along with what Jason Aaron has been doing with the concept for the past few years now, and it's been one of my favorites and has continued to be so even with the introduction of the female Thor. Before this whole crossover got started, her real identity was revealed, and it opened the door for even more cool stories featuring the character.

Two other big changes involve Spider-Man and Captain America which furthers what seems like a pretty deliberate effort to make the Marvel Universe a little bit more ethnically (and sexually) diverse. With Spider-Man, it looks like Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man, will be part of the regular Marvel Universe, and we're going to have two Spider-Men since Peter Parker seems to be sticking around. As for Captain America, we still have Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon, flying around and tossing the shield.

I'm glad to see Miles Morales be a part of the proper Marvel Universe, and I'm just fine with him being another Spider-Man. I'm not as happy with Sam Wilson. Here's why:

I've read all of the collected editions of Miles Morales's adventures, and I've enjoyed them all tremendously. Even though he's not Peter Parker, his stories bring it all back to the "hero who could be you" vibe that the original Spider-Man adventures had, while giving it a modern twist. As for his ethnicity (black and Hispanic), it's a part of who he is but I don't see any reason why a white kid couldn't relate to him, just as plenty of black and Hispanic kids could relate to the teenage Peter Parker. Is it diversity for diversity's sake? Maybe the initial premise was, I have no way of knowing one way or the other. But even if it was, they've created a great character whom I care about.

The thing is with Peter Parker is that he carries a lot of baggage. They aged him at a rapid pace in the early years, but then they tried to slow things down as it was clear that the character was going to keep attracting new fans. It seems like in the new Marvel Universe, Peter has been allowed to progress and achieve his potential in the field of science that we always knew he had. Sure, they'll probably eventually pull the rug out from under him, but just as it's cool to see an old friend grow, we still have Miles to experience new adventures of a regular kid with spider powers.

But why am I not as happy about Sam Wilson as Captain America? Have I got something against The Falcon? Actually, my problem is the exact opposite. I love The Falcon. He's a great character, and I always liked to see him play a key role in Captain America's adventures. (And I really love Anthony Mackie's portrayal of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) I'd buy a Falcon solo series if there was one.

In other words, even though he still has the wings, I miss The Falcon, and I don't need him to be Captain America.
Plus, it still feels too soon to me after Bucky Barnes replaced Steve Rogers as Captain America to have yet another "Here's another guy wearing the Captain America outfit" story. Still, if they had to do it, I'd rather see some other guy wear the costume than Sam Wilson. Plus, I think that if you're going to have a black Captain America, then you have to go all-out with it. In other words, think of how so much of the country freaked out when Obama was elected President. People were screaming "I want my country back!" before he even took office. Parents were protesting that students were shown a video of him giving a "work hard, stay in school" message because somehow there's just something sinister about that guy. It seems to me that if there really was a Captain America, and then he got replaced by a black guy, that man would have to deal with some serious grief.

And yes, I know, comics are fantasy and aren't necessarily going to reflect reality in all ways. But Marvel does have a track record for taking on social issues. Seems to me like they have an opportunity to do so here.

Shoot! Maybe they are going to address it with the new series! That sort of a thing might make me change my mind.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ideas for the new Spider-Man franchise

I already wrote my thoughts on the new Spider-Man re-reboot, but after doing so I kept thinking about stories that I would like to see adapted into the movies. After all, one of the best of the current superhero movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier came right out of the comics. Did it follow the story beat-for-beat? No, but the comics were a clear inspiration. That's the kind of thing that I'm talking about here. I'd like to see these stories as a starting point for some movies as perhaps direct adaptations wouldn't work as well in a movie as they do in monthly serialized comics.

Before I get into specific stories, there are a couple of other things that I'd like to see. For one, the Marvel movies have shown us that you can have a lot of villains without bogging down the story. For instance, to use The Winter Soldier again, Batroc the Leaper, one of Captain America's oldest foes, was in there. For people who don't know the comics, he was just a really tough bad guy for Cap to fight, and they didn't need to know what the fans knew about him. Cap knocked him out, and the story moved on from there. I think that with Spider-Man, you could do the same thing. For instance, I don't think that Mysterio could carry an entire movie as the villain, but he'd be really cool for an opening action sequence, much like how The Avengers took down Baron Strucker and Hydra in the beginning of Age of Ultron.

Also, both versions of the Spider-Man movies got caught up in a bit of a formula. Every villain that Spider-Man fought was a good guy at first and had some sort of a connection with Peter Parker. This really isn't necessary. Sure, they did a good job of it with Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, adding a whole new dimension to the character that previously did not exist. But did we really need it for Sandman and Electro? There's nothing wrong with just having some bad guys.

Okay, so here's what I'd like to see inspire the movies:

Kraven's Last Hunt - Yeah, I know that pretty much every Spider-Man fan is saying this if they're making suggestions like I am. What can I say? Just like a lot of other fans, I remember reading this one when it originally came out when I was in middle school. The gist of the story is that Kraven the Hunter, a bit of a C-list villain, finally decides to "kill" Spider-Man rather than get into one of their standard grudge match fights. Kraven traps Spidey, shoots him, puts him in a coffin, and he buries him. Then, to finally prove that he's better than Spider-Man, he puts on the costume and goes out fighting crime, as well as bringing in a particularly nasty villain named Vermin that Spider-Man failed to catch. (Spoiler alert - Kraven didn't actually kill Spider-Man. He just knocked him out. He did bury him though to complete the ritual. Still, he wanted his old foe to live so Spider-Man could know that he had been bested once and for all.)

As much as I'd like to see this, I think that it would be a capital mistake to hit the ground running with this story. Maybe save it for the second or third new Spider-Man movie, as it's a bit intense for an opener when they want to establish a younger, lighter version of the character for starters.

Hooky - This was a graphic novel by Susan Putney and Bernie Wrightson that came out when I was a kid. Just like "Kraven's", it had a pretty profound affect on me. In fact, I think that I need to do a "Read These Comics!" entry on it one of these days as I want to get into how awesome Wrightson's artwork is.

But that's not the point of this. I want to say why I think it'd make a good movie. The premise involves Spider-Man meeting up with a young girl who turns out to be the daughter of a couple of really powerful wizards. She asks him to come to her dimension to help her out with a little problem of hers, as there's a curse that's been placed on her, resulting in a monster that's trying to get her. Spidey agrees to go with her, and he quickly finds himself getting way in over his head, as the monster transforms and gets bigger and bigger. Ultimately, it's a coming-of-age story for the girl, as she learns to handle the problem herself (and Spidey is there to inspire her).

Perhaps adapting this would be too much of a risk, as audiences might not be expecting this much magic in a Spider-Man movie. All they need to do is establish some ties with Dr. Strange (who's getting his own movie) and maybe they can do something with it.

The Spider-Totem - The original appearance of Morlun would be a great inspiration for a movie. Essentially the premise behind Morlun is that he's a being who periodically hunts "totems" down and drains all of their life energy. He's been doing it for thousands of years, and in the story, he has his sights set on Spider-Man. What was so great about the original story was that Morlun was just so unstoppable, and the suspense was really high as to just how Peter was going to defeat him. He'd throw everything he possibly could at Morlun, and the villain wouldn't even get winded. This could make for a pretty intense movie.

The Sin Eater / Return of the Sin Eater - Both of these stories could probably be adapted together into a movie if they did it right. Essentially, the Sin Eater is a villain who winds up killing a good friend of Spidey's, Detective Jean DeWolff. When Spider-Man finally catches up to the criminal and unmasks him, he loses his cool and beats the ever-living-crap out of him. In fact, he gets so out of control that it takes Daredevil to pull him off.

In the "Return" story, the Sin Eater is let out of jail. A bit more is learned about the man behind the mask, Stan Carter, who turns out to have been Jean's lover. Stan is "cured" of his Sin Eater personality, but Spider-Man goes to him to threaten him that he'll be keeping an eye on him. During the confrontation, Spidey learns that Carter has some permanent injuries due to the beating he took. As a result, Spidey becomes nervous about using his powers, and in a confrontation with Electro, he winds up getting his butt handed to him.

The story packs a pretty emotional punch, and it has a good story arc for Peter Parker as he has to find his purpose again. It's another look at the basic premise of the character and the "great responsibility" that comes with this "great power".

So, those are the story ideas off the top of my head. Any of you Spidey fans have some other suggestions?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Read These Comics! - Dark Empire

Back in 1992, the world was getting ready to get excited about Star Wars again. Technically, this resurgence began in 1991 with the novel Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn, but it all started to get really exciting when Dark Horse Comics published the first Dark Empire series. This began a wave of Star Wars comics by the publisher, which was exciting because for the most part, there hadn't been any since 1986 when Marvel stopped publishing them.

It was also going to be another seven years until The Phantom Menace, and it was looking less and less likely that we'd ever get to see what happened beyond Return of the Jedi. With this series, we got to see the next step in the evolution of Luke Skywalker, as he fully embraces the dark side of the Force just as his father did before him. Why would he do such a thing? He figures that it's the only way to learn the secrets of a resurrected Emperor and ultimately defeat him. Unfortunately, he gets in too far, and it takes his sister, Leia, to bring him back to the light.

Lucas always declared that all of the novels, comic books, etc. were officially "non-canon". In other words, if he wanted to make movies that contradicted what happened in them, then it was the movies that were the official version. That's a bit different now that Disney owns the property, and everything fits into one large continuity. One way or the other, by the time the prequel trilogy came along, this story really doesn't work for a few reasons:
  • Clones - The Emperor resurrects himself using clone technology. There are references to the Clone Wars, but they don't really jive with what happened in the prequel trilogy.
  • The nature of the Emperor - In this series, Palpatine seems like more of a force (no pun intended) of nature rather than just the latest in a long line of Sith Lords. His power is almost god-like, being able to not only resurrect (although with the aid of technology) but to summon vast "force storms" that swallow everything in their path.
  • The ambiguity - Part of the appeal of this series is the references to what went down with Luke's father. Since we didn't know the official version of those events, the reader is left to wonder if maybe Anakin Skywalker tried to join the dark side just to defeat it as well. (Turns out, not so much.)
There were two things that were somewhat controversial in this series, and I've heard fans complain about them. The first one is the resurrection of The Emperor. I have to admit that I kinda liked it. It makes a lot less sense now that we know what we know about how Sith Lords work, but I liked the idea of Palpatine being an embodiment of evil rather than just an evil guy, and to defeat him was to completely eradicate all evil - which is impossible. Plus, whenever I'd play with my action figures as a kid, I'd often do a story where The Emperor had returned, and it was going to have to be Luke himself who would have to defeat him once and for all.

The other problem was the return of Boba Fett. All he said was that the sarlaac found him "indigestible". (Later stories would elaborate on this.) I didn't have a problem with this one either. For starters, we didn't see him "die" so much as enter the mouth of the monster. Second, the sarlaac was said to take 1000 years to digest his victims. Looking at that monster, it was obviously gravity and some tentacles keeping people (and aliens) inside of it, and it didn't seem to chew its food at all. Lastly, Fett was wearing a jet pack. It had a malfunction, but with all of his body armor protecting him while he was inside the belly of the beast, I could easily see him rocketing his way out of there.

Re-reading the series recently, I was also struck by what a distinct artistic style artist Cam Kennedy employed. He not only did the art but the colors as well. As much as I like the new Star Wars books that Marvel is doing, they all have a very traditional look about them. Dark Horse let Kennedy employ some interesting color choices, giving the book a very distinct mood that went along with its rather grim theme.

Basically this story has become a "What If?" or "Imaginary Story" or "apocrypha" if you want to sound more religious. It's worth a look, or a re-look for long time fans. You might have to do some searching if you want to find it. Oh, and for the record, go ahead and skip the two sequels. I didn't even bother to keep those in my collection.