Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book Selections of the Month: Pray for Mjolnir (comics, movies, more)

It’s the National Day of Prayer (and Cinco de Mayo), and this week that means praying to the Norse god Thor, or at least attending the movie about the Marvel Comics version of him (join me in the lobby of the AMC 34th/8th Sunday at 4:30, ticket in hand, if you want to join me for the 5:30 show) and using the occasion as another excuse to talk about comics.  Mayhem, mayhap?

I am suspicious of anyone reluctant to celebrate heroes and the downfall of villains, which is why I think this gentleman on his ATV may be a much healthier celebrant of the Bin Laden take-down than some of my anti-interventionist and pacifistic acquaintances, despite what some might see as his lack of nuance.  (And don’t assume that al Qaeda members themselves are responding with renewed determination – this one’s already turned himself in, as sometime-war-poet Gregg Glory points out.) 

And Borat’s cousin – whose book on sociopaths and other empathy-lackers I’ll examine with fresh interest in the topic in August – might agree with me that there is something psychologically inhuman about indifference to the triumph of good over evil, even if indifference can make for sound scientific reasoning and, oddly enough, good comedy – as I’ll discuss in my June Book Selections entry, on Daniel Dennett, James Thurber, and related matters.  (By contrast, looks like about half of those self-reported birthers weren’t so crazy-stubborn after all.)

The “end of evil,” as David Frum once put it, may not be a realistic goal, but it is unnatural not to desire it, shameful not to pursue it. 

But enough science and psychology (unless you want to check out this periodical table of appearances by chemicals in comic book stories): on to a list of interesting comics (and related items, ten texts in all) so interesting I had to make exceptions over the past year to my avoidance of comics and read them.  I hope you’ll agree it sounds like I’ve gotten very choosy (and I’ll dedicate it all to Jackie “Perry White” Cooper, whose recent passing was noted by Jacob Levy – and occurs a mere week before the Smallville finale).


For real heroism, look to people such as the libertarian eulogized here by Jeffrey Friedman (who managed to be laissez-faire while still addressing problems like laid-off coal miners).  For unreal heroism, look to comics and sci-fi – but note the increasingly blurry line between these forms of reality and unreality, with self-proclaimed superheroes working to protect people on Long Island from a serial killer and even film directors such as the one slated to do the sequel to Taken giving themselves monikers like Olivier Megaton (he’s French). 

I.  In the beginning, there was the Book of Genesis
(speaking of which, my own litany of animals from Tuesday should have included a shout-out to Chris Moody, who noted the “Baby Monkey” video).  Centuries later, there was Robert Crumb’s big illustrated Book of Genesis, with all the text and very straightforward, literal illustrations.  He did a fine job, and the Book of Genesis itself remains boring and morally irrelevant when not simply barbarous (sorry, Christians and Jews – I speak the truth, always).  The good stories are, as the average person who’s never even read the damn thing suspects, Eden and Noah at the beginning and Joseph and his amazing Technicolor dreamcoat at the end. 

The rest, which I swear I went into with an open mind – and great sympathy for Crumb’s argument in the intro that it’s a storehouse of collective wisdom – is all just begats and cuckolding, basically, plus many references to sheep and goats.  The Bible is for morons, and you all know it.

Or maybe I’m just regionally biased.  Did you know that of the ten least-religious states (per some survey), six – count ’em, six – are good ol’ New England?  If I have often talked like a guy who never thought he’d even encounter any smart God-believers and thus could easily dismiss the issue, I blame society.  The other four states are Oregon, Washington, (slightly more surprisingly) libertarian Alaska, and sin-filled Nevada.  New England is pretty cool, I have to say.

II.  At the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum – and making for an even better comic book – is the life of skeptical, logical philosopher Bertrand Russell.  The biographical Logicomix written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, with art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, some of whom may be Greek, is a wonderful overview of the strange early days of logic theory from the late nineteenth century through the inter-war period – and it emphasizes the fact that Russell was well aware that the search for unshakable rules of logic can be almost as unsettling and irrational as madness itself, as the breakdowns of various influential mathematicians and logicians suggest. 

I am also struck by how much Russell looked like Magneto, or possibly a Guardian of the Universe, and by how much his observation about set theory resembles the Groucho Marx joke a few years later that “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Here are other strange “facts” about the man you may not have known.

On a related note, my friend Ali Kokmen notes that his friend Fred Van Lente’s Action Philosopher comics will be among those adapted as plays at Brick Theater next month, so check that out (and in the meantime I’ll admire the pages from an issue of that comic that Scott Nybakken and Michael Malice gave me as a birthday gift one year). 

III.  BlueWater Comics’ Female Force: Margaret Thatcher, a gift from Kristi Kendall, is an inspiring read and likely more accurate than the upcoming movie The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep, which depicts Thatcher as suffering from dementia despite friends and family saying she doesn’t (eco-activist Streep is apparently going a step farther this time than when she played Julia Child and merely badmouthed that rather conservative and anti-food-scare lady after completing the film).

It will be interesting to see if anyone confuses Iron Lady with Iron Man’s appearance in The Avengers or with the Nazi comedy Iron Sky, both due out around early 2012.

IV.  Less political but basking in the glow of Kennedy-era optimism is the DC Comics collection The New Frontier, a modern-day retelling of the emergence of the Justice League characters circa 1960 with the gift of historical hindsight not possessed by the writers of the day.  It’s also a marvelous collection of character-capturing vignettes that make it all seem shiny and new again. 

V.  Next month’s X-Men: First Class will revisit the early 60s to combine what we now know with the superheroes of the day.  More purely-contemporary – and developing its own internal simulacrum of politics – is the vast cast of characters that populates the collection X-Men: Nation X, not a bad sampler, showing how the X-Men literally moved from their traditional mansion to an island called Utopia and found themselves contending with an array of new problems such as food supplies and diplomatic relations with the mainland, a harried Cyclops all the while eclipsing Prof. X as leader.  It’s not high art, but it gives you an idea what keeps the fans deeply engrossed.

It’s also part of a trend toward larger casts and more complex social relationships in comics, I think (perhaps the influence of online social networking making people’s brains more attuned to such things, which I think is mostly healthy).  For those who know, consider the Justice Society adopting the town of Monument Point, the popularity of at least three other comics starring mayors or presidents, the self-consciously generational shifts in recent Justice League and Titans comics, the multiple Lantern Corps, ensemble comics such as Brightest Day, the Fantastic Four becoming the larger Future Foundation, even the multiplying Hulks. 

This suits my own preferences.  It was Avengers and Super-Friends for me before it was ever any strong fascination with mostly-solo characters like Batman or Spider-Man – and it was X-Men at the real peak of my comics enthusiasm, back in high school.  But then, even Bruce Wayne is now starring in Batman Inc., in which he’s creating Batman franchises all over the globe, using heroes from several nations.  And Dick Grayson is the Batman of Gotham City, learning to fit into the place’s history and subcultures better.

At one point, Marvel’s heroes were organized into a massive Initiative (briefly alluded to in the recent films in the phrase “the Avengers initiative”) in which each of the fifty states had its own superteam – composed for the most part from Marvel’s immense storehouse of already-existing characters – all linked via Tony Stark and SHIELD at the center, for a time. 

(This all reminds me that way back in 2002 I read the book Linked about bourgeoning attention to the structure of social networks and games like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and though the book was perfectly common-sensical, it still held some novelty value at the time, which shows how much we’ve changed – and how much we’ve grown accustomed to it – over the past decade.)

If there is ever another new X-Men TV series, they could do worse than adopt the Utopia premise as their initial status quo, if they wanted something fresher than Xavier’s School (not that you can beat the classics).

COOL OBSCURE BONUS FACTOID: The term “homo superior,” often used to describe the “highly-evolved” X-Men, was popularized after apparently being coined in conversation between David Bowie (who used the term in the great song “Oh You Pretty Things!” – arguably his best) and the producer of the UK sci-fi show Tomorrow People, which bore more than a passing resemblance to the X-Men (who bore more than a passing resemblance to the earlier novel Children of the Atom).  

The Wikipedia entry for “homo superior,” though, gets you a list of honest to gosh real-life superhumans.  (Peek!  Tammet!  Para-V!  Savage!  Shire!  Orlando!  Gamm!  Underwood!  Einstein!  GO!!)

VI.  I was lucky enough to be present in a bar when a comics industry professional announced he was leaving several trade paperbacks on the bar for the taking.  I am not sorry I claimed a classic Amazing Spider-Man anthology by Stan Lee and John Romita featuring the “Spider-Man No More” storyline (and a very odd and largely pointless rampage by the human Rhino).  Once I’d claimed it, I had to read it, of course, because with great power comes great responsibility. 

VII.  As if my Austin, TX trip last month weren’t hip enough, while I was there I bought the collection Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite written by Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance, and I have to admit I went in wary of this rock star possible-dilettante, but it was a damn good read, the fey and vintagey-feeling yet very hip printed analogue of something like the movie Brothers Bloom, with talking chimps and bowler hats and the Eiffel Tower, yes, but also with a smart and cynical streak that makes all the more convincing the family ties between the embattled characters, former super-kids in a world grown more dangerous and divisive – and now lacking their scientist-mentor dad. 

VIII.  Another stylized yet earthy-feeling comic, back in the day, was Will Eisner’s The Spirit, which, alas, isn’t selling well under other creative hands at DC Comics these days – and was also butchered in film form by the ostensibly-talented Frank Miller, who seemed more eager to prove he could do a Batman comic in film form than do to something that captured Eisner's wonderful and unique blend of Dick Tracy and Norman Rockwell sensibilities. 

I knew The Spirit movie would be awful, though, given that even the fanboys stayed away from it when it came out a couple years ago – stayed away so decisively that when I tried using the geographic function on MovieFone to find the nearest place showing it mere weeks after its open, the closest theatre was in the middle of Connecticut.  And I live in Manhattan, where there are about 1 billion movie theatres. 

Roger Ebert rightly said, “There is not a trace of human emotion in it.  To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material.”  The film does for Scarlett Johansson’s acting roughly what Star Wars did for Portman and Batman for Thurman.  You probably never thought that seeing Johannson in a Nazi uniform torturing someone would make you want to see her breasts less, but such is the power of Frank Miller’s filmmaking.

Frank Miller + Will Eisner does not necessarily equal quality, apparently, in much the same way that spaghetti on pizza is not a good thing – and in much the way that U2 + Spider-Man + Julie Taymor does not necessarily equal quality. 

Yet I still think they should let Miller direct a Dark Knight Returns movie.  I believe in letting people redeem themselves. 

IX.  Far more impressive a film (and not comic book-related, but I’ll toss it in here anyway) is Moon by Duncan Jones (a.k.a. Zowie Bowie), which does such a good job of moodily blending the aesthetics of things like 2001 and Alien and Silent Running and Outland – while raising questions about the nature of personal identity that likely plagued Jones in his philosophy classes – that I may just have to see his new, bigger-budget film Source Code after all.  (And for any students of philosophy-of-mind reading this: Daniel Dennett will be part of my Book Selections entry next month.) 

Jones’s short film Whistle about an assassin’s ethical qualms (dedicated to Dads everywhere at the end) is on my Moon DVD, too, and I happened to see it the day after bin Laden’s assassination – and a week after lamenting that I was busy during a recent screening of Moon at an NYC science club.

I am pleased to report that the talented Jones may be the replacement on The Wolverine now that Aronofsky dropped out – even better, says I.  And speaking of animal-men: tomorrow on the blog, a look at the mythical Bigfoot.

BONUS DAVID BOWIE FACTOID: He performed on Scarlett Johansson’s 2008 album of Tom Waits covers (here she is doing “Falling Down,” for good or ill, with Bowie backing).

X.  And I finally watched the first few episodes of Battlestar: Galactica, which is as great as everyone I know has been saying for the past seven years.  But don’t tell me anything about how it ends (badly, I know). 

On a vaguely related note: five years ago, a series of Robot Chickenized ads for Star Trek on G4 appeared, and this one always struck me as the simplest, shortest (30 sec.), funniest use of amusingly incongruous elements, though maybe it’s just me.  And when I say maybe it’s me, I mean: maybe my friends feel like they’re seeing me doing karaoke when they watch that ad.  If it makes them feel safer, my recent performance of “Cuts You Up” means I have fulfilled my life’s karaoke goals already. 

I do not promise that tomorrow’s entry will be un-nerdy, though it will contain a mighty bear.