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Our Mothers, Our Whores

29 Sep

I was born a male. I have lived my entire life as a male, and barring something unexpected I expect to die a male. It is not a source of pride, really, but an incontrovertible and undeniable aspect of who I am. I am a male, my astrological sign is Leo, I wear a size 11-1/2 shoe. These are simply facts about who I am.

I considered myself an “Enlightened Man” long before I’d even hit puberty. Owing largely to a strong maternal figure and a liberal upbringing, along with generally being more bookish than rowdy, I had a cadre of platonic girl friends at an early age (which, incidentally, endeared me in no way to the boys at school.) I was raised to respect women, to assume their intellect as I would assume any man’s. And for a long time, I thought I did this–even admitting an opposite sort of prejudice where I expect more from women than men, because I think women are generally smarter and better at constructing logical arguments. And so I went in my smug little way, happily traipsing along, silently denouncing the cat-calls of blue-collar workers and frowning disapprovingly at my friends’ misogynistic comments. Whatever vitriol being heaped upon men by feminists certainly did not apply to me, because I was an Enlightened Man.


Recently it began to dawn on me that I may have been, to borrow a French phrase, full of shit. There has been lots of warranted feminist outrage on the internet lately, from GamerGate to the wrongful termination of Jennifer Williams, to the #YesAllWomen twitter campaign, it seems like women are using the digital platform to take a stand for themselves. My gut reaction was to largely ignore these controversies because I didn’t think I should get involved. Surely I’ve never denigrated a woman or made her feel uncomfortable. I’m one of the “good guys,” the fellows that compliment ladies on their clothing and ask women for relationship advice and only look at their boobs for a few seconds rather than entire minutes. I believed I was supporting the fight for feminism by not diluting it with my testosterone. And then I decided to go against common sense and check the comments section.

I was absolutely stunned by the aggressive, angry responses I saw to these current events. Venomous, hateful threats of violence and rape. Denouncing what women wrote as divisive libel, women being called stupid and fake and sluts. Claims that women should take their grievances to lawyers or the police–I suppose to the Men Are Being Mean To Me Department, headed by Sergeant Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head–instead of bringing these discrepancies to light. It made me ashamed to have been born a male, and that’s when it dawned on me that perhaps I have been an unwitting misogynist all my life.

I have never physically hurt or threatened a woman, I don’t think I’ve even yelled at women. But I’ve definitely dismissed women for being “hysterical” or “crazy” when they complained about inequities. I’ve certainly leered at women inappropriately–and thought I was somehow better because I did it quicker than some other men. I’ve told women I like their blouse or hairstyle, never thinking that maybe women in specific and people in general don’t feel like striking up casual conversations based around the fact that you’ve been scoping them out. At a young age, I was taught that if you like a girl, go ask her out; the worst she could do is say, “no.” I wasn’t taught to respect others’ privacy and not to open a relationship by asking someone to entreat partnership with a stranger. The discrepancies between my thought and deed piled up. I considered myself a swell guy for considering most men idiots while regarding most women as geniuses. It didn’t occur to me that I was actually giving guys a pass while rigorously subjecting women to my expectations.


As it turns out, I am a male, and I feel all of the entitlement that men feel towards women–that they should be grateful for my existence, that they should be buoyed by my attention, that somehow I was doing them a favor with my condescension. I even considered my non-involvement in Feminism as some kind of benevolent acquiescence to women. “You go girls!” I thought in self-satisfaction, “Tell those nasty men off!” Never thinking that I might be one of these “nasty men,” or even that my non-involvement was more evidence that I marginalized women and their silly feelings. It’s both a comforting and terrifying thing to learn that I can have profound realizations about myself this late in life. It’s nice to know I can still learn and grow, but about what else am I kidding myself?

I find I am the subject of a lifetime of conditioning, despite my Ms. Magazine mom, and that my lifetime is but a sliver of societal conditioning stretching back to the dawn of humanity. We all come to accept some things as simply true: sex sells. Women work hard to look pretty and should be regarded for it. If a woman wears certain clothing, she wants you to gawk. These aren’t concepts I arrived to through careful consideration but by observing the world around me and being trained by the same concepts that train everyone else. We are all in this together, men and women, all of us educated from womb to tomb that boys like farts and girls like flowers, and never the twain shall meet. And, if you don’t get my point by now, that’s absolute bullshit.

How will I proceed? Well, for one thing, I’m going to cut the crap. I can silently appreciate a blouse and roundly chastise my friends for misogynistic comments. I can attempt to regard women on their merits and not based on some condescending notion about their superiority. The problem isn’t that women aren’t running the world, it’s that women by and large aren’t running shit. That even well-respected women in positions of power can be called “emotional” for speaking their minds. And I might have counted myself among those who waved off women’s problems as “Woman Problems.” The one thing I know for sure is that women aren’t going to become equal by screaming into a vacuum that no man can hear. It will be up to us, menfolk of the world, to change our perception of women and how we treat them if we’re going to see true gender equality. If you believe in fairness and respecting others as you would want to be respected, then I don’t see how you could do any less. And if you don’t believe in fairness and think women should be seen and not heard, then go fuck yourself and throw yourself into the mouth of the nearest live volcano.

Goddamn You, Robert Kirkman

1 Mar

I’ve been reading The Walking Dead in trade editions since they started coming out in 2004. For those that think this essay might be about the TV show on AMC called The Walking Dead, it isn’t. I don’t watch that show. I saw the first season and the first episode of the second season and dropped it. I found the show plodding and aimless, the dialogue ridiculous to the point of insulting, and generally found the program to be a huge letdown. I have heard from some that it’s gotten better (though others tell me it sucks still), but I don’t care. How many chances am I supposed to give a show? If you can’t ramp up to speed after the first season, then your show is a failure. Maybe I’ll catch it all one drunken weekend when the series has wrapped up, but I’ve no interest in following it week to week, and I’m not prepared to discuss anything specific about it.
The comic, however, I’ve been reading in trade editions since 2004. Frankly, I didn’t like that at first, either. The art was uneven and the drama was pretty sappy, and I wasn’t connecting with the characters enough to care whether they survived a zombie apocalypse or not. There was an introduction in the first paperback which told the reader how great the series was going to be, how profound and changing it would become, which turned me off. I walked away from the series for about a year, then went back when the story in paperback was up to where the protagonists met the Governor. I got hooked. This was no Mad Max dystopian future, it wasn’t full of insightful, annoying social commentary, it had become the rather touching story of human beings being fucked up to one another in order to survive. Even at this early stage in the story, the zombie horde was little more than an occasional nuisance. The real threat came from other members of the living.

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This point was made shockingly clear in a splash page scene of the main protagonist’s wife getting shot in the back while clutching her newborn baby. I realized at this point that I had grown to like these characters, enough to hope for their success, and to see this hopeful thing snuffed out in a very large, graphic way was disheartening. I became a fan, and started to follow the adventures of this widower, Rick, and his increasingly weird son Carl as they tried to make it in a world where no one could be trusted. I picked up volume after volume, gripped by the depths to which our heroes would sink in order to stay alive and defended. I scanned panel after panel of them walking through the wilderness, scavenging what little they could and losing hope for a stable future. I read, and read, and read about their actual and metaphorical journey. Then I started to get bored again.

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At one point, they are led to a fortified suburban enclave where a group of people have holed up and formed a community. Then it started to feel like a soap opera. Just people fucking each others’ partners and getting jealous about it. Yeah, people died, but it was often due to over-the-top reactions by blowhards with post-traumatic stress disorder. It wasn’t like I needed to see more death or deaths caused by zombies, to the contrary it seemed like deaths were being shoehorned into the plot in order to make it engrossing. I was getting bored of the series, and figured I would drop it soon if things didn’t turn around. And turn around they did, in vol. 17, Something to Fear.

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It hardly necessitates me claiming “spoilers” when this edition has been out since last November, and the floppy comics produced well before that. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I willfully spoil shit without penitence. How else am I supposed to write about the things I want to discuss? Besides, I’ve already dropped plenty of plot points in this essay already without cautioning “spoilers,” so fuck yourself. So by this point in the story, the folks in the suburban enclave have met another larger, far off community who is willing to trade supplies. Unfortunately, this larger community is being terrorized by a gang known as the Saviors, who demand half of their supplies in exchange for not fucking up the commune. Our heroes have a run-in with this gang, kill several of them humiliatingly, and then are back on the way to the larger group for supplies when they’re accosted by the Saviors. I’m leaving a lot of incidental stuff out, but the important thing, the instance that makes me want to shake my fist at Robert Kirkman and which will keep me buying new trade editions for the foreseeable future, is that the leader of the Saviors pulls Glenn out of the group and bashes his head in with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. Oh, and Glenn’s girlfriend, Maggie, had just revealed she was pregnant. Did I forget to mention that? Glenn was brutally snuffed before he got to be a real dad for the first time.

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And there it was, the same sickening pitch that lured me in the first time will lure me in for another half dozen or so volumes. Fucking Robert Kirkman. Playing with our sensibilities and emotions like some puppeteer. Forcing us to face our most deviant proclivities while you toy with our heartstrings. I don’t necessarily want to read a comic where a main character gets his head caved in so badly that his eye begins to pop out, to watch him calling for his girlfriend while a spiked bat crashes into his skull over and over. You made me do that, Robert Kirkman, with your slow burn suspense story and pandering to the lowest gory denominator. Goddamn you, Kirkman. Just take my wallet and leave me sobbing in a corner with my brutal self-realizations.

Give the Boot to Reboots

7 Feb

It’s been about a year and a half since DC Comics restarted their entire line-up of titles with The New 52, a company-wide event that did away with the past histories of their diverse line of characters and started all over again to attract new readers. I thought it was a hare-brained idea at the time, but being that I don’t buy floppy comics and I’m fairly used to DC making incomprehensible business decisions, I decided not to opine. Sure, I was pessimistic, but that’s my nature. What the hell do I know about a good Flash comic anyway? The best thing you could do for a Flash comic, in my opinion, is cancel it.

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Well, the dust has settled, trade editions of the first New 52 comics have trickled out, and what we see isn’t a more tempered, sensible universe than the one that preceded it, but the same confuddled claptrap as always. Some origins have been changed, Barbara Gordon has overcome her paralysis to become Batgirl again, but there’s no sense that we’re seeing anything new and fresh. And why should we? DC Comics has a history spanning nine decades, one they periodically try to omit with little success. DC’s concern with its past seems to revolve around the fact that their characters have been portrayed in many ways over the years. This makes sense because different people have written and drawn the comics, and public sensibilities have changed radically in the last century. For some reason, this doesn’t sit well with the powers that be: they feel that Superman should never be depicted changing clothes inside a phone booth when we live in a cellular phone world.

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I think that DC Comics should embrace their storied history, and not in the cornball way they usually do by dragging kitschy characters like Challengers of the Unknown and the Bat Mite out of storage for a “modern” revamp. A “reboot” usually means the male heroes will all have stubble and wrestle with their consciences while they clobber globs of snot from outer space. Instead, DC should admit that they have a lot of characters spanning a healthy person’s lifetime and let writers do what they fucking want. You want to write a story about the early days of Wonder Woman? Go ahead. You want to depict Batman with an iPhone and a Bat-Segway? Let’s see what you’ve got. Many of these characters have become archetypes for our culture and personal gratification. The important part about Superman is that he can punch people through walls, not whether or not his adoptive Earth parents wore spectacles. Cut it out with these title-spanning events that change DC continuity and make Superman have to wear ridiculous costumes.

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What I’m saying is that a fictional world of people who can fly unencumbered through space and fire laser beams from their fingertips doesn’t need a reboot. It’s fantasy, and as such writers should feel free to depict these characters in any fashion, from any era, and respect the readership enough to take these stories at face value. I know DC has its Elseworlds line, but I’m talking about having fun with these heroes and villains in series. Maybe depict the Joker with some humanity. Allow Superman to fight alongside Aquaman with the bureaucracy of the Justice League getting in the way. Let the Green Lantern cut a fart now and again. His uniform already leaves little to the imagination, it’s not a far leap to begin showing his endocrine functions.

Forget the Stupid Justice League Movie Already

14 Dec

Hey, there’s been some recent news about the long-rumored Justice League film, due out 2015! Isn’t that exciting? Haven’t you been waiting for a movie about the Justice League for like freaking ever?! You know the Justice League, right? That collection of DC Comics properties that includes Superman, Batman…I think Wonder Woman is in it…also the Flash and Green Lantern, and…that green guy. No, not Green Lantern, I already mentioned him. The other one. The guy that’s as strong as Superman plus he turns invisible. Also the guy with the wings, Hawkman is in it. I think that’s it. Oh wait, Aquaman, he’s got to be in there. Basically everyone from the SuperFriends except the non-white characters.


Wait, there’s more heroes in the League? You say that the Justice League contains every hero belonging to DC Comics, going back to 1938? Well, fuck me. There’s something lackluster about a specialized league that anyone with a talent remotely approaching a super power can join. They have two heroes with the power to stretch themselves like taffy. There are about four that can run faster than the speed of sound. And there are so many meta-humans with the power of flight, that their base of operations has to be held on a fucking satellite. Otherwise, they’d have to employ air traffic controllers, opening up a host of labor problems. There are more people in tights in the Justice League than the Ringling Bros. circus. And every time they hold a meeting, there’s a rift in the space-time continuum or something that spells imminent disaster for the cosmos. I mean, I’m not saying there’s a causal relationship, but it’s a coincidence worth investigating since the fate of the universe seems to depend on it.


Why Warner Bros., parent devils to DC Comics are so gung-ho for a Justice League movie, I have no idea. It’s not like their other attempts at comic books-turned movies in the new millennium have been successful excepting Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and, to a lesser extent, attempts to turn Alan Moore’s graphic novels into movies. Green Lantern was an irredeemable piece of shit. Superman Returns was almost as confusing as it was boring. What DC has proven is that when they have a lot of input into how one of their characters is represented in movies, the result is garbage. Only when more talented people take the ball and run with it, like Nolan did, are the results satisfactory. “Perhaps,” you begin, pushing your coke-bottle glasses up the greasy bridge of your blackhead-specked nose, “comics are already in their perfect medium and require no film representation at all.” You might be right, despite the cloud of halitosis you belched in making that comment. But Marvel comics has made a bunch of superhero movies in the 2000s that are entertaining and enjoyable. They even made a pretty good movie around their clown costume conglomerate, The Avengers, which collects a bunch of well-known Marvel heroes, many of them already established in their own films.


That’s the first reason that the Justice League movie shouldn’t be made: we haven’t seen decent representation of the heroes involved outside of comic books and cartoons. And let’s face it, only nerds and fatties watch cartoons and read comic books. The rest of the world will be scratching their heads wondering why a hero like the Flash exists when there is already an even buffer dude named Superman who can move at super-speed. Batman as represented in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy obviously doesn’t exist in a universe populated by other superheroes, and besides–spoiler alert for this movie that’s been out for six months–Bruce Wayne gives up the Batman mantle at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. It would seriously taint an otherwise solid trilogy if DC dragged the same character out of retirement so he could fight space fish with Dr. Fate and Plastic Man. The implication of the article linked in the first paragraph is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will play Batman in the Justice League movie, tying it to the Nolan trilogy since Gordon-Levitt was in the last movie. But that strikes me as totally unnecessary and stupid. For one thing, this would mean that Bruce Wayne will not be Batman in the Justice League movie, which will thoroughly befuddle and irritate the average person who is familiar with popular representations of Batman. For another thing, it’s entirely unnecessary. The tale of Batman is timeless, it can be (and has been) told and re-told a lot of ways, provided the basic tenet–that the son of wealthy socialites deals with the trauma of having watched his parents get gunned down before him by dressing up like a bat–remains the same. Jospeh Gordon-Levitt could fit that bill well enough, particularly if he’s to be surrounded by other heroes in their technicolor dreamcoats. He would be a cog in the Justice League machine, so a fully fleshed-out character may not be necessary.


But even given that fact, a Justice League movie would only serve the highlight the fact that DC has made little progress ingratiating their characters with the general public. Where is the long-rumored Wonder Woman movie? How about an attempt at telling Hawkman’s fairly intricate origin story outside of a film that will have to squeeze in the characterizations of at least half a dozen super folks? Baby steps, people. This apparent need for DC to skip to the end of the story was the main flaw in the Green Lantern movie. Yes, as I wrote before, Ryan Reynolds was mis-cast in his role as Hal Jordan. But it might have been a serviceable movie had his character not gone from ordinary test pilot to a cgi space cop battling the oldest evil in the universe in the space of one movie. In the comics, Hal Jordan doesn’t even get contacted by the Intergalactic Nerd Cops until he’s dicked around with his new ring for a while. They might have stretched the Green Lantern story into two and three movies, instead of making one largely incomprehensible piece of shit. And that’s what we’re looking at in a Justice League movie in two years.


It’s the movie few people understand and nobody wants. Maybe if I thought they’d do the Justice League from Keith Giffen’s run in the 1980s, I’d get on board. That was a group of secondary heroes doing a kind of Moonlighting/Hill Street Blues type of thing, and the characters were evinced through dialogue with each other. I guess I fear that the Justice League movie in 2015 might open with Batman and Superman standing on the bridge of their satellite headquarters, then during the credits they get attacked by Starro the space monster. Twenty minutes later, they’re already on an alternate earth fighting Owlman and Ultraman. By the last half hour of the movie, they’re replaying the events of Infinite Crisis to a thoroughly bewildered and bored audience. But maybe I’m too pessimistic. Or maybe I ACTUALLY WATCHED THAT FUCKING GREEN LANTERN MOVIE WITH RYAN REYNOLDS AND I WANT MY GODDAMNED TWO HOURS BACK.

We’re All in the Same Cult

12 Nov

I never get approached by Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s one of my life’s sad truths. I see them often enough, standing outside of my local subway station, clutching copies of Watchtower and Alive! magazine. I’ve noticed them strolling around the neighborhood in pairs, ringing doorbells and attempting to spread the gospel. But somehow, I always get overlooked by these well-meaning weirdos, and honestly I can’t help but feel like I’ve been snubbed. Am I that obviously doomed to eternal damnation that I’m not worth their time? Or perhaps they don’t want me in their exclusive little club because I look like I’d be too difficult to shame. I know I dress like I’ve got nothing left to lose, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear the Good Word. Because honestly, that shit cracks me up.


There’s a tendency among smug assholes like myself to view the devout as a bunch of brainwashed rubes. It seems like the more fanatically followers adhere to non-secular rules, the more bizarre those rules are. It makes sense, I suppose: you can’t exactly half-ass snake handling or self-mutilation to please your ethereal alien masters. Spaced-out diatribes by Moonies and Hare Krishnas lead us to believe that behind the barricades of your average religious compound are a bunch of vapid airheads who have completely lost touch with reality. But that’s not necessarily true, as I learned from Kyria Abrahams’ memoir I’m Perect, You’re Doomed, which describes her upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness in late twentieth-century Rhode Island. You can be a wackadoo who believes that Jesus Christ is fascinated by your masturbatory habits and be really into The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.


I learned a lot about Jehovah’s Witnesses from this lively and hilarious book, and the culture of shame that keeps meat in the Kingdom Hall seats. But I was more interested to learn of the familiar dysfunctional aspects of the author’s upbringing. She had a lot of the same stupid thoughts and feelings that any kid has, but all couched in this belief that these were the trappings of the mortal, and therefore inconsequential world. Where one kid might anxiously worry about their grades because they wanted to secure a good future, the author felt that it didn’t matter since she’d inherit the earth eventually anyway. However, she still experienced anxiety over the stuff she didn’t have, the friendships that were at once tenuous and vital, and the inability to actualize. These are things that all kids feel, whether they think that a hundred and forty-four thousand chosen people will sit at God’s right hand in Heaven or not.


And maybe that’s why I haven’t been approached by any Jehovah’s Witnesses, because I come across as an unapproachable jerk who will probably make trouble. Which, incidentally, I would. I mean, these people believe that they’ll inherit the earth and live in peace with lions and bears, for crying out loud. How awesome is that? One of my favorite parts of I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed is when the author was cruising around the neighborhood, looking for homeowners to pester with the True Word, fantasizing about which homes they’d occupy once all of the non-Jehovah’s Witnesses vanished after the Apocalypse. So essentially, after the Rapture, they can traipse into my apartment and see the copy of Answer Me! and various morally stumbling influences that would have made me a poor candidate for eternal life in the first place. Your sins always find you out.

Besides writing a worthwhile book, Kyria Abrahams also writes for http://www.streetbonersandtvcarnage.com/ and tweets hilarity from @KyriaAbrahams. Check her out!

Maus vs. Watchmen

24 Oct

There are two graphic novels that get mentioned in circles where people do not read graphic novels: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. These two titles are considered more “literary” than your average comic book fare, and for good reason. Maus did earn a Pulitzer Prize, among other acclaims, and Watchmen is the only graphic novel to receive the Hugo Book Award. The two works are very special, and couldn’t be more different: Maus is a roughly-drawn, black-and-white memoir, while Watchmen is a full-color superhero story with some social commentary. Why, then, do both of these books get bandied about by smarty-pants comic book snobs? You’d think that fans in general would eschew one or the other, being that they are so contrasted. It would be like if your two favorite foods were chocolate and parsley.


The main thing that Watchmen and Maus share is that they’re in their perfect medium: comics. As straight text books they would be too complicated, as cartoons or movies they lose all of their frozen-frame nuances. Maus is primarily the retelling of the author’s father’s experience in Jewish ghettos and concentration camps during the Nazi regime in Europe. He does so by portraying the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, and other ethnic groups as various animals. In the second book in this two-part work, the author addresses the reader directly, in human form, but with a mouse mask obscuring his face. This is a gimmick that would not work in written form, it would make absolutely no sense. Watchmen is even better-suited for the comic book format since it is at once a commentary on comic book history and the superhero genre, as well as an engaging narrative about a compelling cast of fictional characters. There is even a comic book within Watchmen, a pirate-themed title called Tales of the Black Freighter, the events of which parallel occurences in the main tale, in (what has since become) traditional Alan Moore style. Indeed, I worried about how this might be handled in the Scott Snyder film version of Watchmen; to have a meta comic within a movie isn’t very meta at all. Happily, they excised it from the movie altogether and instead told only the surface story, leaving the unworkable comic book commentary in the book where it belongs (there was a butchering of Tales of the Black Freighter in horrible cartoon form on some DVD editions, but we can pretend it didn’t happen.)


What interests me is that these two wildly different books get mentioned so often during discussions of the genre. We’re certainly not suffering from a dearth of graphic novels, high-falutin’ or otherwise. The obvious answer is that these were two of the first graphic novels to treat the genre seriously–not the first, but two of the first (he wrote, trying to stave off a lot of angry comments by comic book nerds). These books came out in the 1980s, which is an important decade for comic books for two reasons: one is that the model for comics distribution changed so that publishers could ship books directly to comic book stores. This affected comics because it connected the fan base more securely to publishers, who were no longer jockeying for position on the same racks that carried People magazine and Newsweek. But the other thing that happened in the 1980s, the thing I believe is more profound than and may have contributed greatly to the creation of a direct distribution model, is that baby boomers entered the middle class en masse, and started to pine for their younger days when they’d read Silver Age comic books, safely nestled in their nuclear fallout bunkers and dreaming of Russian space dogs. Or something like that. My father, one of the aforementioned baby boomers, had tomes upon tomes collecting various comic books and comic strips from his childhood, and throughout my time growing up would regularly bring home newer editions. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that I was seeing something relatively new and unique to my parents’ generation, who had grown up squirreling comics in the bottom of their clothes closet, only to have them thrown away by mom during freshman year away at college. For my part, this reference material gave me the opportunity to learn about Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and EC’s The Vault of Horror. I was able to read an entire year’s worth of Popeye comic strips, then put that aside to look at the origin issue of Plastic Man.


As mentioned before, I don’t buy “floppy” comic books, I prefer the collected trade editions and standalone graphic novels when it comes to my panel stories. I think this is partially owed to the fact that there were so many comic book books around my house when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that it might be weird to own and pursue such things. My dad is very literate, always reading two and often three beefy books at a time, but that doesn’t stop him from poring lovingly over old issues of Donald Duck or the collected Barney Google strips. I think that this is a somewhat modern mindset: many of my peers do the same as I do, ignoring floppy comics and waiting patiently for them to appear as inevitable trade editions. So you might see me reading The Epic of New York City on the subway, or you might see me reading Vertigo’s Preacher comic series. Arguing whether or not comic books are actual art or should be taken seriously is dead, you either think comics are worthwhile or you don’t. Now the discussion turns to: what are the greatest examples in the medium of notch-bound graphic novels and collected trade editions?


The answer, apparently, is Maus and Watchmen. I’ve recommended these books many times, the former for people who have never read a comic book or any sequential art beyond the Peanuts comic strip, and the latter for people who have fodt memories of reading funnybooks as a kid, but haven’t so much as cracked the four-color cover of a comic in decades. Each seems to serve its purpose, both books routinely impress their readers. In fact, the persistence of these titles as viable books is a testament to their validity. You can go back and read the first issues of Spider-Man and learn of his origins, his awkward teenage gawkiness and struggle to use his powers wisely. But you could never appreciate these comics without the context of their production. Watchmen and Maus, both works fixed in specific times and real places, endure long after we stopped giving a shit about The New Teen Titans and their decidedly yuppie angst. Which is the better title? That’s impossible to say, for while they can be compared on basis of genre, they can’t be compared on many other levels. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll say Watchmen is the better book, because it is printed in color. Take that, Spiegelman.

Living Among the Shit

10 Oct

I am reminded of an old Dead Kennedys lyric: “anarchy sounds good to me, then someone says ‘Who’ll fix the sewers?'” This is a serious consideration, because as a people we produce a lot of waste. A lot. In my city of New York alone, we produce 1.3 billion gallons of waste water every day. You should really let that sink in. That would be almost half a trillion gallons of poop and pee every year. It’s really something to consider, especially if you’ve got a mind to change the status quo and shake things up a bit. If your social plan doesn’t include dealing with people’s shit, then you haven’t thought things through.


This is a problem that’s plagued all fauna since the beginning. Indeed, one of the reasons human beings led a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle for much of our early existence was to escape our own poop. We’d set up camp for a little while, spread our waste around willy-nilly, and then move along once hunting prospects thinned out and the place became too smelly. The issue of waste management became a dilemma once humans began collecting in larger and larger groups, until the nineteenth century when cities grew in populations exceeding their locality’s natural ability to deal with crap. It’s all detailed in the interesting but dryly-written book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, the true account of London’s cholera epidemic of 1854. It wasn’t the first or last of London’s cholera epidemics, but it was significant in that science began to suspect contaminated drinking water, and not “miasma” or “bad air,” for the plague. And what contaminated the drinking water, of course, was poops.


Johnson details the world of sanitation in pre-Victorian London, which involved people crawling into dank spaces with brushes and scrubbing away the shit. Implied by the fact that cholera kept breaking out, this method wasn’t exactly foolproof or entirely sanitary. There were rudimentary sewage lines, but these fed from the wealthiest homes and simply led straight to the Thames River, which was befouled beyond any use in short order. Most people crapped in outhouses, which sat above large holes in the ground. When the holes were full…well, someone had to crawl down there with a shovel and brush and clean it up. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.


Dealing with waste is still a tremendous problem for every major metropolitan center around the globe. If a city of nine million is cranking over a billion gallons of brown water every day, then imagine the vast quantities of stinky effusing from denser population centers in India and China. We are talking about a shit tsunami here, people. You can desire to dismantle the Federal Reserve, you can seek to abolish a corrupt political system. You can espouse socialism or anarchy or benevolent monarchy if you think that will get the job done. But if you haven’t considered who and how will we deal with our lemonade and fudge, then you haven’t figured out shit. Because all of the personal freedom in the world isn’t worth a hill of dung if we’ve got to wallow in our own filth.

Sins of the Father

18 Apr

For as long as I could remember, my dad’s evening commute included a one-mile walk from the 7 train’s terminus at Main Street, Flushing to our two-family home in Auburndale. Usually, he would come sauntering through the door, whistling some complicated tune and swinging his canvas briefcase like a happy grade-schooler handling his lunchbox. He’d maintain this jocular mood while walking up the steps to our second-floor apartment, then his happiness would disperse and he’d adopt his regular sour puss in preparation for what was to come–for very often, there was some situation involving my brother. Adem was caught cutting class again. Adem drank all the beer in the house. Adem punched the bathroom mirror, shattering it and lacerating his hands with the shards. In the ten seconds it took for my father to traverse the hallway between the front door and the door to our apartment, between his guises as Employed Guy and Punitive Father, you could catch a glimpse of the man in his natural state, unencumbered by responsibilities and ethics and harsh realities. And you know, I’m glad he had that much. Because as bad as my brother could be, there are plenty of dads who don’t get even that time to be themselves, to be absolved of their own anger and guilt and whatever other stupid feelings parents have towards their wayward children. For want of a twenty-minute walk home from the subway, other dads have no respite at all.


Take, for instance, Commissioner James Gordon, that well-known fictional character from the Batman universe. Doggedly devoted to his job and a high-minded concept of justice, Gordon is commonly depicted sympathetically by applicable funny book writers, sort of the “good cop” to Batman’s “bad cop.” But he is not without his faults, and along with his awards and trophies and commendations for stellar police work, Gordon is also the owner of one failed marriage, one second wife tragically murdered in the line of duty, a handful of crooked cops making merry on his watch, and other assorted failures and derogatory accusations. These hurdles, they wear on any man, even dads. And Commissioner Gordon is a dad, to his adopted daughter (in the current iteration) Barbara Gordon and his biological son, James Gordon, Jr.


Oh, you don’t know about James Gordon, Jr.? You don’t remember when, as a baby, he was rescued by Bruce Wayne in Batman: Year One? That act of heroism is why then-Captain Gordon started trusting Batman in the first place. See, now you remember, but you didn’t remember before because James, Jr. appears in Batman: Year One and practically nowhere else. He figures prominently in the well-done graphic novel Night Cries by Archie Goodwyn–in which we actually see Gordon’s first wife separate from him and move to Chicago–but otherwise, we don’t learn too much about the lil tyke. We’re so intimate with Barbara Gordon that we can predict her menstrual cycle, but James Gordon, Jr. remains an enigma.


Until the story arc contained in Batman: The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder. Perhaps you’ve been avoiding reading recent Batman fare because all of the established constants of the mythological world he inhabits are perpetually shifting as of late. Or maybe you never gave a shit about Batman and are asking yourself why you’ve read this much of my review. For the purposes of The Black Mirror, it’s only important to know that the usual Batman, Bruce Wayne, has taken leave and left his ward, Dick Grayson (aka Nightwing, aka the first Robin) to wear the Batman costume. Get all that? So where the Bruce Wayne Batman is all brooding and large swaths of black ink, the Dick Grayson Batman is more convivial and happy, preferring the high-flying trapeze routines recalled from his youth as a circus performer to wallowing in the filthy streets, violently separating miscreants from their teeth. Got all that? Any questions? Good. You should have questions.


So in The Black Mirror, you’ve got Dick Grayson playing Batman, trying to fill the shoes worn by his adoptive father, Bruce Wayne. You’ve got the bastard daughter of mafia boss Tony Zucco, now a bank manager trying to escape from the shadow of her biological dad’s criminal past. And you’ve got James Gordon, Jr., who approaches his poppa with an apparently sincere desire to reconnect with his family. The rub is that James Junior is a psychopath, he does not feel empathy for his fellow man, and is suspected by his dad of having committed several violent crimes. Intertwining all of these characters, The Black Mirror challenges the idealized nature of father/son relationships, affirming the dichotomy of being any member of a family and its contradictions. Parents are sometimes required to dole tough love, children need to be self-reliant and independent in order to prove that they’ve been raised with due attention. Dealing with members of your immediate family can sometimes be like looking into a mirror, a black mirror at that, a very similar reflection turned unfamiliar by obfuscating the features we expect to see.


And that, my patient readers, is where The Black Mirror fails. For while I was able to create an adequate metaphor for the story based on the title of this trade collection, Todd Snyder goes on for the entire run about how Gotham City is “hungry,” how it feeds on pain or whatever trite bullshit you want to assume about a city that’s positively famished. Sure, Gotham City is hungry, it’s also sleepy and sneezy and Doc if you sit and think about it long enough. You can apply virtually any metaphor on a fictional city, so why Snyder insisted on going to the long way around to describe its hunger is beyond me. It’s called Black Mirror, many parent/child relationships can be construed as each person being a mirror for the other, and sometimes that mirror is blackened in that we see things about ourselves that might not be pleasant. How does a starving city play into this? What does a corrupting, peckish city have to do with fathers and sons? Very little, I think, and Snyder doesn’t seem to care enough to draw even those parallels. It’s more like he wanted a noir concept to run through the series in order to tie the narrative together, but either didn’t see or care to acknowledge the lay-up concept. No matter. It’s disappointing to see an easily-fielded ball dropped, but it doesn’t mar this engaging story terribly. Check it out, Batman fans.

The Forgotten Assassinations

13 Apr

For those of us Americans that did not pay close attention in junior high school Social Studies class–me, for example–many of our nineteenth-century presidents kind of run together in a pudgy, high-collared blur. We all know Abraham Lincoln, we know about Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant and anyone else featured on our money, but the remaining guys are often considered as an aristocratic whole, a bunch of faceless members from the Monopoly man’s extended family. You don’t often hear people praising Franklin Pierce, or Rutherford Hayes, or even Andrew Johnson–vice president to Abe Lincoln, for crying out loud. But no grade school student ever has to make a construction paper report about him. What could they say? “Andrew Johnson was the sucker tasked with filling a vacancy left by the revered and beloved Abraham Lincoln, and did a piss-poor job of it.” I’d give the kid an A.

So it is with James A. Garfield, our twentieth president, and William McKinley, our twenty-fifth president, about whom I once knew exactly this:

James A. Garfield was a bearded president who was shot by some schizophrenic guy and died in office.

William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, leaving Vice President Teddy Roosevelt in charge.


For some reason, I was glad to leave it at that. There exist, and I have read, dozens of books about the presidencies and assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. These two and their fatal termini have been analyzed and dissected by scholars and armchair historians, archivists and conspiracy theorists from all over the world. And yet, the lives and deaths of James Garfield and William McKinley seem to be regarded as minor events in America’s history. After reading a couple of books about these guys, I have to wonder why. What strikes me is not how unique or different they were, but how eerily similar their presidential terms and circumstances seemed next to the more popular presidents who met violent ends while in office.


In Garfield’s case, perhaps it isn’t because he met his end at a handgun’s report, but because he died on a sweat- and pus-soaked mattress, months after being shot. Technically speaking, it was not the bullet fired from madman Charles Guiteau’s gun that killed him, but sepsis. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard does a fantastic job dovetailing the lives of Guiteau, Garfield, his attending surgeon Dr. Willard Bliss and even inventor Alexander Graham Bell into an enjoyable narrative set against one of my favorite periods: America after the Civil War. Echoing the assassination of JFK, Charles Guiteau was a lone gunman, also off his rocker in having the erroneous, unfounded belief that he was a political insider owed something from Garfield. He plugged the president in the middle of the day in plain sight at a train station, but that would be a pleasant beginning compared to the rest Garfield’s ordeal. His convalescence dragged on for months as doctor after doctor stuck their grubby fingers in his bullet wound, at a time when washing your hands seemed a spurious luxury though everything was covered in a fine layer of horse manure. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between Garfield’s literally being prodded with the metaphorical prodding of Lincoln and JFK, albeit postmortem. Garfield, like JFK and Lincoln, was also a reformer, his intention was to reform the Republican party from patronage to a system based on merit. Seems like a small cause in today’s times, but remember that he was challenging the status quo during Reconstruction against rival U.S. Grant, hero of the Civil War (except to the South.)


The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller is a very different book than Destiny of the Republic, yet many of the same uncanny similarities between Lincoln, Garfield, and Kennedy persist. McKinley was president at a time of robber barons and magnates, of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, when the disparity between the wealthy and the working poor was tremendously palpable. Men, women and children worked ten hour days, six days a week, under stifling, dangerous conditions for twenty-five cents every pay day. Meanwhile, McKinley’s policies favored unrestricted trade and further boons for business owners. Enter Leon Czogolz, another lonely man, entranced by a budding anarchist movement heralded largely by Emma Goldman. After hearing one of her stirring lectures, Czogolz determines to make a spectacle by killing McKinley, though his connection to anarchism and, indeed, the working class is tenuous at best. Unlike Garfield, McKinley expires within ten days of being shot. The President and the Assassin is an engaging book, but it provides a bit too much detail about McKinley’s rise to power for those who actually only wanted to read about the president and his assassin. Additionally, it jumps backwards and forwards in time which can be a little confusing. It’s all important stuff, however, to describe the conditions that eventually allowed Czogolz to get within range of McKinley and shoot him.


We see the same occurrences, again and again: a lone gunman of dubious sanity shoots a president calling for political and social reform. This leaves a vacuum that is filled to moderate capability by the vice president, sometimes bettering the legacy of his predecessor. If anything, the four presidential assassinations–two remembered, two forgotten–teach us that we should pick our presidential candidates based not only on their integrity, but on the integrity of their potential posthumous successors. No one likes to think about it, but the availability and easy use of guns can change our political fortunes overnight. Imagine if George H.W. Bush had been assassinated in office and Dan Quayle became president! Only a few synaptic misfires and a functioning trigger finger separated that thought from reality.

Mormons: Morons, or More “On?”

26 Jan

Growing up in New York City, I didn’t get the opportunity to interact with a lot of Mormons. In fact, until I was in my late twenties, I encountered exactly zero Mormons, at least to my knowledge. I was aware of Mormonism, however, through a series of awesome commercials that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would run on Saturday mornings during my cartoon time. When I was very young, I thought they were another of the morning’s public service announcements, like the one where a bunch of sock puppets warned you not to take your mother’s Sucrets. By the time I was nine years old, I realized that I was actually being pitched to by a religion, and a Christian one at that. It didn’t really bother me, except that religion was cutting into my personal Saturday time, when everyone knows that church and evangelical television programs belong on Sunday.


My first exposure to actual tenets of the Mormon religion–besides their famous and salacious allowance for polygamy–was from watching the movie Plan 10 From Outer Space. This remains on the list of weirdest movies I have ever seen, and I could spend this entire essay trying to explain the plot. Pertinent to this piece were some of the facts about Mormonism as presented in the movie: that God came from a planet called Kolob, and every Mormon gets his own planet in the afterlife. It was starting to sound more like science-fiction than spirituality. A couple of years later, I started dating someone who had a copy of the Book of Mormon, which I promptly borrowed and read and never returned.


I truly think that every literate person should read the Book of Mormon, because it is one of the funniest and most insane books ever written. If you’re like I was, you probably think the book is full of a bunch of new age baloney and pseudo-holy mumbo jumbo that isn’t worth your time. But you’d be wrong. The Book of Mormon is the unbelievable and ludicrous story about Jews living in America during biblical times, how they warred among themselves, and how a faction of the Jews named the Lamanites angered God were turned into red-skinned Native Americans as punishment. The book claims that, during the three days between Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection, he zipped over to what would become America and imparted some sage wisdom to its multitude. I mean, that just blows my mind. That means the Book of Mormon is partially an account of Jesus’ “lost weekend.”


In 2003, I read Jon Krakauer’s wonderful book Under the Banner of Heaven. It’s a compelling, well-written account of the history of Mormonism interspersed with a more current story about a Mormon woman murdered by her brothers. The book is really about a Mormon sect that is not part of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints–that would be the “official” Mormon church, but like any religion there are lots of splinter groups with their own ideas. Some of them still practice polygamy and engage in incest as proscribed by scripture, and Under the Banner of Heaven makes clear that these practitioners comprise the smallest portion of Mormons. In fact, they would not even resonate as Mormons as we know them. Turns out that the ones practicing incest and killing their wives were a far cry from the short-sleeved, starched shirt missionaries with precise haircuts and shit-eating grins that one would normally associate with Mormonism. I still came away with the notion that Mormons are a strange, backwards people, well worthy of my ridicule.


It was around this time that I actually met a guy who was Mormon, the idea of which tickled me to no end. Imagine my disappointment when he didn’t try to explain that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson, Missouri, didn’t tell me about Heavenly Father’s plan to give me my own, personal planet in the afterlife. He was, annoyingly, a very pleasant, polite person that liked a lot of the same comic books that I do. I plied him about his faith, and he pretty well pulled my card: “You’ve read the Book of Mormon,” he said, “you know what we’re about. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then fine. It doesn’t make me want to stop talking about Batman.” I was very embarrassed. Here I was, hoping to meet a kooky, wacky Mormon that would regale me with ridiculous stories about Jesus visiting America, all along I was the nut job hovering around, pressuring him to say something that I could laugh at. It occurred to me that practically every creed and belief sounds like complete bullshit when you voice it aloud: “I believe that the universe was spontaneously created and that the invisible air around us actually contains tiny particles whose structure and movement matches that of our solar system.” Weirdo. I lost touch with this Mormon friend a while ago–he lost touch with me, actually, probably because I was such a pain in the ass about his church. But I resolved from then on to judge people by the things they do, not by my regard for their beliefs.


A couple of weeks ago, I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway. I’m a fan of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and really enjoyed the episode of South Park which details a basic history of Mormonism. The musical was hilarious, too, and if you’re not shy of some seriously blue language, you should check it out. However, the play ends implying that working together and helping each other are the real major tenets of Mormonism, not the stuff about golden plates and multiple wives. The important things are the values that they espouse, because everyone believes in some retarded-sounding shit whether they know it or not. The episode of South Park dealing with Mormonism ends in much the same way. Many people I’ve known say that they respect religious scripture and spirituality, but reject churches as inherently corrupt. Mormonism kind of turns that idea on its ear, a religion based on scripture that sounds like a load of donkey loafs, but realized in a church that actually fosters community, family, and good works. You really can’t hate on that.

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