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.