Dec 15, 2014

Black Panther Part 2 – Politics, Batroc, and Racism, Oh My

Black Panther
Part 2 – Politics, Batroc, and Racism, Oh My
Ben Smith

As I detailed previously, I was sufficiently inspired by the Marvel Studios Phase 3 announcements to embark on a quest to familiarize myself with the adventures of the Prince of Wakanda. Last week covered the lunacy that was the Jack Kirby run as artist and writer.

Next up, I decided to take a sizeable chunk out of writer Christopher Priest’s Black Panther series. The early part of the book had its moments, such as taking down Mephisto with one punch, or Hulk as club hopper, but the (forced upon him) method of storytelling got to be too annoying.

Fortunately, I skipped ahead to the “Sturm Und Drang” story in issues #26-29, an exciting tale about a standoff between Lemuria, Atlantis, and Wakanda. The story was filled with enticing scenes of politics between Magneto, Black Panther, Dr. Doom, and Namor. As boring as that might sound, I assure you I am totally serious when I say I could read that on a monthly basis.

Plus, the relationship between Storm and Black Panther was further developed, something I had always thought was forced upon the characters later on. T’Challa has a rare moment of transparency and vulnerability as well, which I found really powerful.

Next on the docket was the acclaimed “Who is the Black Panther” by Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr. Hudlin is not a writer I had much confidence in, since his only work I’d read previously was as part of the worst era in Spider-Man history, but he crafted an entertaining and subtly provocative story here. I tend to have a like/hate relationship with modern Romita Jr., but he’s competent enough here to not be distracting.

The plot is simple enough. Framed around a retelling of the origins of Black Panther and Wakanda, Klaw assembles an invasion force including himself, Rhino, Batroc, Radioactive Man, and the Black Knight.

One of the things I like most about the Black Panther in my short time reading him, is how competent he is portrayed. (This shouldn’t really be something that impresses a superhero comic book reader, but you have to remember I grew up reading Spider-Man and X-Men.) He is basically the Marvel equivalent of Batman much more than Captain America is, something I am told angers Batman fans to no end. (Knowing this pleases me.) Panther always has a plan, and even when things don’t seem to be going to plan, it was always a part of his plan anyway.

Another interesting part of Hudlin’s storytelling, is how ugly and racist some of the characters are shown to be. Most comic book writers tend to be white males, so there can be an understandable level of trepidation for one of them to consider writing “jungle bunnies” into a script for Black Panther. This often means that the ugliness and racism that still exists in our society is sometimes overlooked or not addressed. It’s not the type of thing I’d find entertaining to read about as the center of a story’s plot, but including it in the margins, gave the story a level of authenticity that’s not often achieved. Racism is ugly, and it still exists, no matter what you want to believe.

Alongside that, is a depiction of the U.S. government and military that I regretfully find completely believable (to a point). Despite Wakanda never attacking any force that wasn’t already at their borders, that doesn’t mean that tomorrow they won’t decide to invade other countries and take over the world, at least in the eyes of American military leaders. There used to be a time when our country used its military power to do the right thing, not to consolidate more power and resources (or use the bodies of dead soldiers to make a cyborg army). At least that’s the viewpoint of this superhero comic, so feel free to agree or disagree at your leisure.

I liked Black Panther’s philosophical religious question here, if only because I think there are way too many athletes that think God really wanted them to win whatever game they’re playing.

Longtime readers will know that I have an irrational love for Klaw, based on his role in Secret Wars, which was formative in my childhood development. Klaw finally gets his comeuppance (for now) in this story. But it’s not the Klaw I know and love from my childhood, so it’s not as traumatic and damaging to my psyche as it might otherwise be. (Klaw was much more traditionally recognizable in his appearance during the previously mentioned “Sturm Und Drang.”)

Overall, Hudlin and Romita delivered an entertaining and engaging superhero comic book story. If you’re not immediately drawn in by the promise of Batroc and subtle racism, I don’t know what else I can tell you. Body-swapped prostitutes play a role, for those needing a little extra incentive.
I’m going to continue with my Black Panther reading, so if there’s anything I feel significantly inspired to write about, we’ll cover that next time. If not, may the Black Knight have mercy on your racist soul.

Dec 10, 2014

Review: Short Peace

Short and Sweet Animes by Talented Directors: Short Peace Review
by Tanya Lindquist

Short Peace is a series of short anime films by some of the most talented directors in Japan. There is a companion piece to the films in the form of a video game called Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day. The films and video game explore Japan in different time periods. The film opens up with a girl entering a portal and begins to change clothes and hairstyles once inside, signalling to us that we are entering a world where magical things will happen.

The first short is called Possessions by the director, Shuhei Morita, of Tokyo Ghoul. This film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short in 2014. The story follows a man seeking refuge in a Shinto shrine for the night. Once inside, strange things begin to occur. Supernatural spirits visit him and seek his assistance. The man soon realizes there he can’t leave the shrine unless he helps them. This world feels right at home in a Hayao Miyazaki film particularly Spirited Away. What I enjoyed the most was the use of color in the umbrellas and in the fabric.

The next film, Combustible, is by the director of Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo. Set in the Edo period, the film evokes imagery of a woodblock print. The opening scene unfolds as if you were unveiling a scroll. A tale of childhood friends, Owaka and Matsukichi, who fall in love as adults. Their love is not meant to be when Matsukichi is disowned by his family, and Owaka is arranged to be married to someone else. While the story is very generic, there is no denying that a master is at work here. The animation is exquisite, and every inch of the screen is full of detail.

Gambo, the third entry, goes down the horror route. Story is about an ogre who kidnaps the women of the village for nefarious purposes. The villagers ask a samurai to rid them of the ogre. The only woman left in the village is the Emperor’s daughter, and they want her protected at all costs. The Emperor’s daughter runs off and lays among a field of red-orange flowers. The imagery of that scene is quite striking and is a clear contrast of what is to come. This scene is interrupted by a white bear. The samurai, who is following her, is suspicious of their interaction. He had a previous run in with the bear and regards it as evil. The girl is able to approach the bear, and asks it to destroy the ogre. This was by far my favorite of the films shown. It is the one that lingers with you through the credits. The confrontation between the bear and ogre is visceral and full of tension.

The concluding film called A Farewell to Weapons, and is directed by Hajime Katoki, famous for his work on the Gundam series. The anime follows a ragtag group of soldiers who are sent into a torn down city to defeat an enemy. The enemy turns out to be a robotic weapon that seems unstoppable. The quick cuts and shaky cam in this anime made it feel a lot like other live action military films. As a result, it becomes confusing who is who when they jump around to different soldiers and get the action from their perspective. The ending is what makes the viewing worthwhile. The tone of the pieces switches from action film to biting satire.

Short Peace is a worthwhile series of anime to seek out. Each one is unique and is reflective of the director’s style and artistry. The closing credits that appeared at the end of each segment felt bothersome at first, but by the end it provided some much needed time to pause and reflect. I hope Otomo considers doing a Short Peace 2 with a whole new set of directors.

Dec 8, 2014

Black Panther Part 1: Brass Frogs, Yetis, and Colonel Pigman, Oh My

Black Panther
Part 1 – Brass Frogs, Yetis, and Colonel Pigman, Oh My
Ben Smith

Recently Marvel Studios announced Phase Three of their plan for the movie universe, which will include movies for Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and the Inhumans. Being the easy mark that I am, I decided to dig deep into the back issues for Black Panther and Doc Strange (I don’t think I’ll ever develop an affinity for the Inhumans) to get my intelligence quotient up.

Black Panther has always been an intriguing character, but much like with Strange and the Inhumans, not one I ever felt got that prestige run by a celebrated creative team (Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko aside) that will pull in the uninitiated. I loved T’Challa on the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon (and that’s the voice I hear when I read him in the comics now). He was part of my core rotation in the Marvel Ultimate Alliance video game (the best Marvel video game ever, besides Maximum Carnage). I’ve always weirdly loved the striped lines on his gloves.

Yet, I’ve never gotten around to reading all that many comics with him. This is mostly because, as longtime readers will know, I was primarily a Spider-Man and X-Men reader as a kid. I didn’t venture into the Avengers side of the universe until (physical) adulthood.

I read the Black Panther’s initial appearance in Fantastic Four #52, and the follow-up that introduced my beloved Klaw in the very next issue. Standard high-level Stan and Jack comic book storytelling. There’s pretty much no way I’m going to read Roy Thomas comics on purpose, so that leaves out Panther’s early appearances in the Avengers, which leaves me with one final early option for high level Black Panther storytelling.

In the ‘70s, Jack Kirby would return to Marvel, and the many characters he created, with a renewed vigor and level of madcap storytelling that can only be explained by heavy drug use (unlikely to be true). What follows is a semi detailed breakdown of all the reasons why you should make these comics your very own.

All issues were edited, written, and drawn by Jack Kirby, inked by Mike Royer, and overseen by Archie Goodwin (except for the final issue).

Black Panther #1

Black Panther and a little person, by the name of Mister Little, acquire King Solomon’s Frog, a brass keepsake that also happens to be a time machine responsible for such historic anomalies as Ali Baba’s Genie, the Loch Ness Monster, and Merlin. (If only that got more than one page of play.)

(“Cancel that bitch!” – Nino Brown)

Black Panther #2

Black Panther does push-ups to temporarily defeat a telepathic alien from 6000 years in the future. In the future, we still number things much like we do in the present.

Black Panther #3

Panther and his allies are able to send the alien back to the future, by rubbing two brass frogs together. I dare you to try and remove this image of Black Panther, holding two brass frogs really close to each other, out of your mind.

Black Panther #4

T’Challa meets Count Zorba, Colonel Pigman, and Silas Mourner. (Surprisingly, Colonel Pigman is the least strange looking of the three, which is not a bet I would have made.) All are members of the mysterious group, The Collectors. Panther’s allies to this point, Mister Little and Princess Zanda, are also members of the Collectors, who seek priceless ancient artifacts of power. (I feel like Kirby is making a comment about collector mentality here.) Regardless, you never want to miss a comic featuring someone named Colonel Pigman.

Black Panther #5

T’Challa fights the abominable snowman, on his quest to find the fountain of youth.

Black Panther #6

Okay, Kirby was definitely commenting on comic collecting.

Black Panther defeats a Samurai. The samurai requests death for the dishonor of losing, but T’Challa is honor-bound by his customs to grant a defeated foe mercy.

Meanwhile, in Wakanda, General Jakarra initiates his takeover of the country. They “shall all pay for the self-hatred which has driven little men with tall dreams…” hey, wait a minute! Uncalled for!

To resolve the death or dishonor dilemma, Panther fights another large man, while the little man sneaks in to steal some of the immortality water, on his own accord. When Black Panther asks him why, the only appropriate response would be the now legendary “Immortality, fool--!”

Black Panther #7

Surrounded by samurais with murder in their hearts, Black Panther invokes diplomatic immunity, saving himself and Mister Little. He settles up with the Collectors before leaving for home.

Black Panther #8

T’Challa pilots his helicopter home, while thinking back to when he won his place as ruler of Wakanda while disguised in an S&M mask.

Panther’s half brother Jakarra’s coup attempt ended abruptly, when his experiments with exposing himself to Vibranium turned him into a monster. A monster that “won’t be handsome, that’s for certain!”

That’s reason enough to be angry if ever I’ve heard one.

Panther picks up a few hitchhikers stranded at sea, who happen to be gangsters, one of which dies when the helicopter eventually crashes.

Black Panther #9

T’Challa’s family and friends form the Black Musketeers to take down the menace of Jakarra. Black Panther is rescued from certain death in the desert by a crew of moviemakers (who appear to be making Star Wars, a full year before it came out).

Black Panther #10

The Black Musketeers try to devise a way to defeat Jakarra, while Black Panther continues his perilous journey home. (Itobo looks like a 1970s hip-hop DJ, if you ask me.)

“Take off that laboratory smock!”

Panther returns just in time to administer the serum to stop Jakarra’s rampage.

Black Panther #11

Panther dreams of a fight against the Uglies, a dream he suspects to be a vision of the future. Itobo tests him for telepathic capabilities due to his exposure to the Vibranium mine, which prove to be true. The Uglies are led by a man named Kiber, who is kidnapping people, and converting them into pure energy.

Black Panther #12

Black Panther tracks down Kiber for the final showdown. He deduces that the Kiber everyone sees is only a projected image, with the real Kiber yet to be revealed.

Black Panther #13 – Plot: Jim Shooter; Script: Ed Hannigan; Art: Jerry Bingham; Inks: Gene Day

Kiber is revealed to be a melted mass of matter on the floor, but none of it matters because Kirby left due to bad treatment and better offers. (As much as I like Bingham and Day’s sleek and powerful Panther, and the storytelling is decidedly Shooter-era Marvel, it’s not Kirby insanity at its finest.)

I know I had read these Kirby Black Panther comics before, but it was most likely during my “comic books should be serious” period, so therefore I couldn’t appreciate them for what they are. Zany, maniacal yarns moving forward at a kinetic pace. Kirby working alone seemed to produce some of his weirdest concepts, and that’s never been more evident than here.

For those of you that prefer grim and gritty “serious” storytelling, this probably isn’t the Black Panther for you. For everyone else, come take a long hit and get high on that Kirby life in its purest form. When you exhale, little people try to steal immortality water.

Next time, the Priest!

Dec 1, 2014

Adaptation is Masturbation

Adaptation is Masturbation
Ben Smith

Recently, news hit the interwebs that Dr. Doom in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot from Fox, will have Doom as a username and not a surname. To the surprise of no one, lots of fans (that most likely haven’t read a Fantastic Four comic in years, if ever) immediately predicted it would be the worst thing ever. (Not only that, but they jumped to conclusions in their own minds that this means he’s working some mundane job as a computer programmer, or he’s a basement dwelling hacker.) It got me to thinking about the nature of comic book adaptations, especially with the ever increasing amount of them on television and in movies.

There are not many things I agree with Jeph Loeb about (representative colors for superheroic storylines aside) but I can appreciate a good bit of wisdom, as he provided during an interview I can no longer locate. Paraphrasing, he basically said that he doesn’t want to see any specific comic book story faithfully adapted to television or film, because he’s already read that story. He wants to see something new. There was a time when I may not have agreed with this, but I definitely do now. Let me explain.

I think we can all agree that the first time we saw Watchmen, most of us sat there and though “this is weird.” (I think we can also all agree that Snyder should have stuck to music videos.) It was weird to see words intended to be read, spoken aloud on the screen. If that was the result of being (relatively) faithful to the source material, than what really is the point of it? If entertainment is about sparking the imagination, or a sense of wonder, in the viewer, what does reciting a story both moviemaker and viewer have already read spark, boredom? It’s bedtime story as major motion picture. Just read Watchmen again instead. Alan Moore > Zack Snyder, I tend to believe.

Not to mention the times that adaptation of famous storylines goes even more wrong, like in the case of X3: X-Men United. I love the Dark Phoenix Saga as much as the next fan, but I don’t want to see it massacred before my very eyes. I’d much rather see a team of moviemakers creating their own story, than eviscerating a beloved one. (Days of Future Past the movie doesn’t have much in common with the comic at all, fans seem to like them both separately just fine.) I think the lesson here is hire talented filmmakers to make these movies, not Snyder or Ratner.

One of the things many people like so much about the Marvel Studios produced movies is how well they’re able to capture the spirit and the essence of the characters they’re adapting. It’s virtually impossible to condense sixty years of comic book stories into any movie, but they can take the best of what works, and ignore what doesn’t. Many would think they are the most faithful to the comics, and maybe that’s true by default, but they’re not as slavish as some fans like to cite whenever Fox Studios comes around to ruin their day. Quickly, off the top of my head; Jane Foster is a nurse, there is no Cosmic Cube in WWII, no Donald Blake, Howard Stark is not that old, Jarvis is a butler, and everything about Nick Fury. The point isn’t strict adherence to comic book minutiae, it’s, well, it’s making an entertaining movie.

That might sound pretty obvious, but making a highly entertaining movie or show, can make up for a lot of supposed comic book inaccuracies. My main quibble with the Dark Knight Rises isn’t all the stupid things it got wrong, it’s that it bored the hell out of me. If I’m bored, I’m going to start picking apart at all the seams of your crappy quilt. Similarly, Amazing Spider-Man 2 had both the most accurate representation of Spider-Man on film yet, and an interpretation of my all-time favorite comic book story. Yet, while I initially liked it, and maybe I still do, the Blu-Ray of it I bought several months ago still sits on my shelf unwatched. Faithful comic book quirks don’t mean a movie will be entertaining or not, it’s just trivia. Spider-Man can be chucking bunnies at a wood chipper in the next movie, as long as it’s highly entertaining in its own way, I’ll support it.

I think all of you will admit I’m the biggest Guardians of the Galaxy fan there is. I can lay out all the things the movie got wrong about the characters and their histories, but it doesn’t matter, because it was a great movie. I really enjoyed it, and I think that’s entirely because of it being (primarily) James Gunn’s version.

I’ll admit I initially got hung up on the version of the Batman mythos in the new Fox series Gotham. I don’t know if that’s because the early episodes just weren’t that great, or if I was having trouble reconciling this new version with all the versions I already know. Ty Templeton had a great comic about it, essentially saying this isn’t the origin for the Burton Batman or the Nolan Batman, but an entirely different one, and that helped me a little bit. That, and the most recent episodes (starting with the first appearance of Zsasz) have been fantastic. Again, being entertaining helps a lot.

John Constantine seems to be the type of character that fans get really invested in, and have a hard time looking past any changes the new television show makes to the established lexicon. That’s fine, despite what you may think, I’m not trying to tell anyone how to feel. I disagree with it though, which is okay. Some of my favorite people are Hellblazer fans. First, I disagree with it because I think it’s a very good television show. Second, I think a page-by-page adaptation of the comic series would be a lot more boring for them than they realize. Not everything that works in comics, is going to work on a screen. (Bonus, it makes me actually want to read more Hellblazer.)

The point of all this being, don’t get too hung up on Victor Domashev. It’s too early to be fretful just yet. I’m a bigger Dr. Doom fan than you, I think I can safely say that. I’m also confident in saying I don’t think there’s any way comic book Doom is ever going to work in live-action. Among other things, he’s a character who never shows his face, in a medium where actors are paid to show their face. I don’t think the traditional comic book Fantastic Four as a whole will ever be adaptable to live action. Reed is a super-genius, and a much older man capable of attracting a younger, more attractive woman, while also being always distracted and generally the world’s worst husband. That’s a lot for any actor besides George Clooney to pull off.

Lots of things sound stupid the first time you hear about them. After all, nobody liked the sound of organic webs, 6-foot tall Wolverine (even though Wolverine has always been depicted in the comics as tall and handsome, no matter what the Official Handbook might say), Chris Evans as Captain America, Ledger as the Joker, and on and on. You don’t know as much as you might like to think. You especially can’t predict the future. I’ve seen Fox try to do “fairly representative of the comics” Fantastic Four movies, they sucked. I’m ready for a new version. Maybe it won’t suck. Let’s wait and see.

Next time, other things!

Nov 27, 2014

Batman, Moses, and Donald Duck Walk Into a Bar...

Fictional Magic and Science
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

“Never accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice.” - René Descartes, Discourse on Method

“Magic I can take - I don’t like it, but ultimately it's just a science I don't understand. But mythology - gods — I like Thor, Cap, but his world — it violates everything I've ever believed in.” Kurt Busiek, Avengers vol. 3, #1

“The Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” - Basic definition of magick, both commonplace acts of will and ritual practices, by Aleister Crowley

Most of the time, we eyeball whether something is scientific or magic in a comic. We make a snap decision and our snap decision will probably never get challenged.

Distinguishing magic and science in a fictional setting is either done ignorantly or it is hard to do. Science, as a term, is fairly concrete in its definition, but not so in its practical, everyday use. The distinction is implied, it is understood, like drug versus medicine. Like “technology,” and like “magic” - whose proper definitions are also all over the place and often suspiciously lacking - “science” is a word we use most often to describe a feeling or a fuzzy set of general coordinates. Star Wars is a science fiction movie, Fantastic Four is a science fiction comic, in the same sense that people say “Batman is more realistic than the Flash” even though Batman stories have, more often, involved boojums and werewolves and Flash comics have, off and on, gone out of their way to include little presumably true science factoids, called Flash Facts. Batman feels more realistic, the way that Star Wars can feel more realistic than the same movie taking place without starships or circuitry. Unstable Molecules (Sturm & Davis) is probably the only Fantastic Four comic wherein all the science included is verifiable and functional, because it takes place in something very close to late 1950s America, but television sets and can openers in the late 50s does not feel of “science” the way rocket ships, alien’s with godlike power, and dimensional portals to an asteroid-strewn hell like the Negative Zone feel of science.

Why? Partly because science, in terms of the scientific method, or as a perspective, is political, in the same way that many churches or sects go out of their way to distinguish between miracles achieved by their own boys and home team deities and the (black) magic of the neighboring church or local doctor, lawyer, or cranky loner with a shack just past the edge of town who has all those fascinating things in jars and can do stuff with them. In terms of the English language, “magic” implies a falseness, a trick or lack of genuineness, to distinguish it from exciting Christian things that would otherwise seem to be cut from the same cloth, because otherwise it would be harder to police or belittle ones neighbors. The words carry more weight than they do definition.

The differentiation between magic and science, like those between magic and magick, magic and religion, or science and mad science, might as well be said to be primally a personal differentiation, because I’m going to prize human autonomy here and freewill. Authors are the intermediary between raw ideas or the world of influences, and the audience. While an audience is not required to interpret sympathetically with the author, what they receive in a comic (or any piece of art or story) has to come filtered and arranged via the author(s), and so, too, an author then has the central responsibility for what is presented, how it is filtered or arranged into art, into story or implication.

There is no genuine test for a person's conviction in God or a miracle, any more than there is a test for conviction in gravity or chickens. But, your personal understanding of those things, your understanding of their mechanics and their reliability can be so unconsidered, that as an author, you plug right along down a road without even realizing you’ve chosen the road from many, or that you’re electing to stray to one particular lane, at a generally stable speed, obeying both local driving laws and understood social niceties - even your road rage will occur and fall into socially agreed upon limitations and arrangements. This is true for a writer or artist portraying gravity as they believe in it, as it is for a writer or artist portraying St Paul, the Marquis de Sade, or Steve Ditko as they believe them to have been or the myths of them to be understood. Because we can do do that. We can distinguish between a Jesus Christ or Loki that we believe to autonomously exist and a Christ or Loki that we know others use as symbol or functionary in services or stories.

Christ and the Devil in Chronicles of Wormwood are cast in a modern perspective, because Garth Ennis is not producing a biography of either, but using them as characters and as pointing tools. They are semblances of things that Ennis knows are talked about, that he talks about, but which he does not believe in and cannot produce satisfactorily in some sort of flesh or brimstone or even with a nice halo and a good beard.

We have to rely on semblances in an agnostic or atheist story dealing with Jesus as much as Iron Man. What the Jesus iconography implies, it implies, and what the Iron Man iconography provides, is what we have to work with, both for authors and for the audience.

Can and cannot. Present and past. Science and magic.

Iron Man isn’t something, real-world, that is replicable or explicable in a functional way, but Iron Man is science, not magic. Society is not bothered by this assertion. Kulan Gath, however, is magic, because he is also full of powers that cannot be functionally explained or replicated in the real world, plus he is really old, tied to an old world, and wants that old world back. Magic, in a distinctly Anglo sensibility, is old and over there, unless we’re being “ironic.” Probably coming out of the rise of the Age of Enlightenment, and a cultural sense that magic, that miracles, have been lost, gone somewhere else.

You don’t see a lot of contemporary Chinese stories or Cherokee stories about how magic has gone off in a boat to a faraway land and all we have is cell phones and steak knives. Unless there’s a clear political underpinning, magic and science in manga that deal with both aren’t explicitly treated as a contemporary and ancient times dichotomy. This is an Anglo neuroticism from the Age of Enlightenment, when magic and miracles were aggressively condemned to the Past, along with such progress as forceps for baby delivery, a tool that legally only men were allowed to use, because… um… midwives… er… women are icky. Science! By which I hope, simply, to illustrate that this breakdown, this distinction, is not and was never one of rationality, but a political obfuscation which, in Euro-dominant societies, particularly Anglo societies, we've bought into through repetition and populism.

A Japanese story, a Brazilian story, wherein a wristwatch is somehow counteractive to magic, like it makes holy water explode or burns goblins, is pretty unlikely. Tempered steel counteracts magic in a ton of western European and Eurocentric fictions, though. Clockwork hurts faeries. Why? Because faeries and gods are old and like the past, in this view, they are trampled down beneath modernity. Modernity, in this model, is anti-magic and pro-science unless the author believes in the sort of magic being employed, which is where you get futuristic stories with full blown Catholic miracles or something like The Invisibles, which is explicitly wedding nominal magicks throughout an otherwise “real world” setting and future, because the author agrees with the bases of those magical orders and practices. Even as a generic rule of received wisdom or habit, steel being death to magic would be a hard trope to employ for someone who is aware of the ramifications of their own belief in, say, the transubstantiation of bread and wine into spiritual flesh and blood, the actuation of reality-altering energies through sigils, prayer or holy penance.

The Jesus or Hell that Ennis uses in Chronicles of Wormwood or Preacher are not attendant to any personally-believed-in Jesus or Hell, but do draw considerably on ideas or previous representations of Jesus and Hell, because Ennis does not believe in an actual miraculous son of a god Jesus or a physical real world Hell. But, Evan Dorkin does believe in Abraham Lincoln and the Lincoln appearing in Bill and Ted’s Most Excellent Comic Book is, as well, shaped more out of the myth of Lincoln, the stories and portrayals of Abraham Lincoln, than what Dorkin (I’m assuming) understands to have been a real and verifiable man. Bill and Ted and Wormwood are both fiction, and their President Lincoln and Jesus, respectively, are explicit characters. That, makes the difference. When dealing with an explicit character or place, we tend to be more conscious of how we use it, how we portray it, whether we believe in it or not. When we deal explicitly with places, people, ideas, we play not only to our personal understandings, but to our presumed audience; they are played for audience reaction. Thus, when we see the prominent religion of the audience dealt with in one of the big corporate-owned shared universes like the DC or Marvel Universe, we are far more likely to see sympathetic devils or varied representations of Hell, because those are traditional even inside Christian society, but an unsympathetic God or Christ is considerably unlikely, and indeed, even a sympathetic one.

So why do people have such a hard time separating Jesus, the ostensibly real guy, and Jesus, the obviously fictional character, when they can easily distinguish an obviously unreal Abraham Lincoln from the genuine article? The same reason we can buy Superman being powered by yellow sunlight and drained by red sunlight, but unaffected either way by yellow or red tinted light. Or, why we can accept Superman turning back time by flying faster that Earth’s rotation, against the rotation, but Superman singing the God of All Evil to nothingness might be too much. It is not about one being closer to reality or closer to science, what it is about is which one feels more genuine. In a sense, human history is towns laughing at the silly herbs and bone setting of the town across the river, and superhero fans scoffing at Superman singing evil to submission, while those towns use their own herbs, and those fans accept punching evil as a very real way to impede its progress.

Let us pretend that Batman is us, since we all know if we were just rich enough, dedicated enough, and lucky enough, with just the right dash of dead parents, we could be Batman. On the old TV show, and quite often elsewhere, Batman would accept anything at all as a vital clue. He would not analyze these clues critically or even pause to consider if it’s flagged by anything as a clue. Everything is a clue and the clues always reward leaps of faith and intuition with answers. We accept this as Batman accepts this, and the world he’s in seems to reward it. But, back when Batman first met Zatanna, a card-carrying daughter of a magic lineage, a sorceress, a witch, a spell-casting marvel, he accepts her accomplishments and tells Robin that they are not magic, but a genetic peculiarity allows her to access transformative energies from wood and other objects and direct it to miraculous ends. Like that makes sense.

Both in fiction and in real life, any investigator practicing this way would be a mystic, from Twin Peak’s Agent Cooper and DC Comics’ The Question to Matthew Fox or Hillel the Elder, but we do not see it thusly with Batman. Batman the “shaman” is isolated to a few Grant Morrison comics the same way that most of us, most likely, downplay our own personal mysticism and ungrounded suppositions so long as they work for us. Albert Einstein, who could just about be a patron saint of science, identified somewhat as a mystic, and he also famously rejected certain evident phenomena based on them, simply, not sitting right with him.

Which, roundabout, brings us to one o the most common unspoken distinctions between science and magic: Science is what works and magic is what cannot. In fiction or in reality, labeling either one, either way, cannot make them more or less workable, but, if Batman can explain the causal elements of a magical act than, by this distinction, it is now science. Magic that works, like science that works, are not obfuscations, but technologies. At least, this is true in-world. In-world, if someone can do something via magic-sounding technologies or science-sounding technologies, than it is a genuine thing with some ability to describe its functions and replicate them. As an audience, though, we are not receiving them as technologies, but as a symbol of functionalism, of accomplishment. The last minute save, in fiction, is not very different from divine intervention or answered prayer; these forms of desire trumping expectation are rewarding in the same fashion, but what agent the act is ascribed to has a social and personal effect that is different from the one experienced by anyone in-world.

I don’t mean to qualify either “side” of this as superior, and I realize I’m expanding this beyond comics, but it might be impossible to overestimate how much this affects comics. A christian who is not explicitly dealing with their version of christianity in a story, may wholly believe they are not addressing christian beliefs or expectations in the comic, but these expectations become nearly invisible to an author when channeled implicitly. Our self-corrector, our social-adjustment software, so to speak, bypasses the expectations and structures, the same way a metal detector that would identify a pistol, but not discussion of pistols, even if the discussion is, “Hey, I’m going to bring a gun in tomorrow and…”

Both authors and audience stop questioning readily when the structures are implicit. But, because an author predates the audience appraisal of a comic, the audience’s alarms can be set off by something implicit that does not agree with their mysticism, their moral or world order, their idea of how things work and why. The authors are, in essence, gone by then. They might read a review that enlightens them, or an editor might call it out, the artist might question the colorist, the colorist might question the writer, but that, generally, occurs before the product is out there in the world. Audiences, though, can be moved to disruption. Audiences can be shocked or dismayed. It isn’t the explicit characterizations and actions, the causes and effects or personalities in Promethea that set my teeth on edge, it’s the moral ordering, the behind-the-narrative lessons and moral causation.

This (abridged) sequence in Promethea, between our heroine, her highest spiritual self, and a cruddy old misogynist who only recently was presenting himself as a sexy younger man, screaming in her face, and trying also to murder both our heroine and her BFF

is part of Alan Moore’s effort to express what he considers very serious magical and social ideas to his audience, and… it’s all kinds of fucked up. I won’t even make apologies for that, and I have been known to make apologies for the teenage love interests in Woody Allen movies.

An astute reader may have, by this point, decided that I don’t see a great deal of difference between religion and magic, or feel that there is both a religious and a separate secular moral framework to an author’s mind. That’s part correct; I don’t believe there is any difference. What Alan Moore is expressing is both a lecture on magic using a story to get it across, it is also a moral and causal framework, a How Things Are explication. How They Should Be. How They Work. The “cuteness” of the banter regarding undressing or the wise old man’s leering bragging cues us to implicit understandings, to an implicit framework, even while there is explicit magic in the transfiguration of Sophie into Promethea or creepy old guy’s ability to cast glamours at will. The causation, here, is no less religious/political than, to take this further into the realm of implicit religious moral ordering, the scenario that Chuck Dixon, himself, describes in the Wall Street Journal as, “Chuck, expressed the opinion that a frank story line about AIDS was not right for comics marketed to children,” without also noting - presumably because he does not connect them - that Dixon was at that time doing stories for those same comics involving underage pregnancy, or positioning the rich, white American, Tim Drake, as a sort of “everyboy” character who was ethically abstaining from sex and consistent in impishly downplaying the young women in his life as a sort of secondary citizenry. These, too, are affects of a moral ordering, of a religious/political outlook.

Those religious/political precepts, which are not backed by rationality so much as habit, and therefore generally do not qualify as “scientific” suppositions or causalities, go much more easily unchallenged than, say, a comic where Heaven lands in Idaho and God’s a bit of a drunk, but it’s okeh because Jesus and St. Paul can throw bolts of radiation from their eyes and hands. You can’t prove either one, that young rich white American boys are always right about everything just because they have drive, or that St. Paul can’t cast beams of energy from his eyes. In point of fact, most comics readers have no problem accepting a myriad of demons and devil-stand-ins, but also things like Hades being an “evil” god, Loki being someone who “isn’t worshipped on Earth any longer,” but even too, Ganesh, as a deity “of the past” who can probably throw lightning from his tusks. Comics readers who took issue with Grant Morrison using angels in his JLA comics, despite his being generally respectful and decently researched, probably didn’t blink too hard when Stephen Strange, master of the mystic arts and the universe’s Sorcerer Supreme said, “There’s no such thing as chaos magick.”

It’s not about fairness, or faith, or rigorous study and conviction. The distinction between magic and science, religion and magic, can and cannot, especially when implicit, and in pop comics (and other pop media) boils almost instantaneously down to what we have socially agreed upon to unblinkingly let slide.

Nov 26, 2014

Review: Avatar: The Promise and The Search

For my nephew's birthday, I got him the Library Editions of Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise and The Search, which continues the now-classic animated series in comic book form and bridges the events between its finale and the beginning of The Legend of Korra. Gene Luen Yang writes, Gurihiru draws, and Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko (the show's creators) consult. The Library Editions have special features, including character designs and annotations by Yang, Gurihiru, and in the second volume, DiMartino.

I was too lazy to read these and write reviews myself, so I had my nephew write one. And here it is.

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise and The Search
by the Tan Man

The Promise and the Search are continuations of the lives of the members of Team Avatar, as they run into new conflicts and daring tests once more. These two books expand and give conclusions to the already vast story of Avatar. First off, The Promise is mainly about the trouble Aang goes through in either picking his duties as a friend or as the Avatar. The Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom face off once again, now on more level ground, with neither being clearly pure evil nor pure good. Both factions have reasonable purposes and both factions are wrong in some regard. The main city The Promise takes place in is Yu Dao, a Fire Nation/Earth Kingdom hybrid town, where the townsfolk live peacefully together, whether they be of Fire Nation blood or Earth Kingdom heritage.

The Search, probably the most-awaited story all fans of Avatar, is about the quest to find Zuko’s mom, Ursa. Team Avatar sets out again to solve a series-long mystery, now with the companionship of longtime rival, Azula, who is now bent to the bones and mentally unstable. Spirits make appearances and play a huge role in The Search. The team works together while Aang tries to help others along the way, Katara does the best she can to help the team with their inner struggles, Zuko is determined to find his long beloved mother, Azula is hell-bent in claiming the throne, and Sokka cracks his usually unusual set of jokes.

In these books, the world of Avatar is evolving into more advanced forms of technology and politics. As seen in The Promise, the city of Yu Dao is attempted to be breached by a mobile automatic drill, a creation that is at the time, out of this world.

The best things about The Promise, besides Team Avatar, are the lush world it instills to the reader, the diverse city of Yu Dao, and the fact that the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom come into the brink of war again. The world of Avatar was definitely and accurately portrayed in the book; it felt as if you were watching the animated series. Yu Dao was also very interesting for me because it was a city unlike any other. No city has ever been like Yu Dao, wherein Fire Nation settlers and Earth Kingdom inhabitants live not as rivals, but as comrades. Of course, we cannot talk about The Promise without the war that was about to ensue, and almost toppled the balance that Team Avatar fought so hard for in the animated series.

The Search lives up to and may have even surpassed the expectations.

The art in the books make the story feel so alive. It feels just like watching the animated series we all love. It captures the essence of each and every character as well as their personalities. The art is truly top-notch, and the portrayal of the characters is very spot on. Through the art, you feel as though you are once again stepping inside the world of Avatar.

Every single character was spot on. They captured the character’s overall personality, all the way down to the little mannerisms they all do. The characters never sway by their morals and their beliefs. The spirituality of Aang, which was prominent in the series, was captured beautifully in the books. The mother-like attitude of Katara was handled excellently, as well as the goofiness of Katara’s bother, Sokka. Toph was still the rough little girl. Zuko was still Zuko, as he is confused and he always battles with his inner demons and, the shadow of his father forever haunting him. Azula was portrayed nicely as they maintained her clever, yet maniacal nature.

The best thing about the Library Edition was definitely the side-notes of the writer, artist, and even sometimes the co-creator Michael Dante Dimartino himself. The notes gave a new perspective and a more in-depth look at the books.

I have only one suggestion: MAKE MORE.

Luckily for my nephew, they are making more. The Rift is already being released in individual chapters, and the Library Edition is out in February.

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