Monday, January 25, 2010

Behind The Mask

Death and Rebirth in Comics

Anyone who reads comics knows that death is never permanent. From Superman, to Jean Grey, to Collosus, we’ve all seen these characters bite the big one only to return triumphantly from the grave a year or two later (or in the case of Bucky, close to sixty years later). The death of a major comic book hero has always equaled big money. But in the grander scheme of things, I dare to ask if death in comics is really death, or is it instead the “spiritual or superhuman component“ of the hero’s overall journey that Joseph Campbell often refers to in the book The Power of Myth.

The death of a hero in comics is for the most part always physical, and usually results from the hero sacrificing him or herself while performing some sort of courageous act in the midst of battle or in trying to save the life of another. In some cases, it involves preserving an ideal (as was the case of Captain America). When these same characters come back to the land of the living, it’s usually due to the fact that they were never truly dead, but were either in cryogenic stasis, their superhuman bodies either shut down or were in a sort of coma-like/ cocoon status, or they actually evolved to a higher state of consciousness, as was the case of Thor at the end of the Ragnarok story-arc by Michael Oeming. In other cases, the hero actually faces Death and either fights his or her way back to the land of the living or makes a deal with the Grim Reaper to return.

In all the instances above, the examples I’ve given are all part of the journey of the “hero” whether we’re talking about comics or other great works of fiction. Generally the rebirth of a hero involves some sort of spiritual reawakening and could also involve a psychological or physical transformation as well.

While we’ve seen numerous accounts of what happens to the hero after his rebirth in works of literature like The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, the journey of the hero doesn’t quite follow the same path in comics. Usually, there are a few issues devoted to what happened to the hero while “dead” and the changes that have occurred within him or her, but generally these are often swept under the rug or rebooted a couple of months or years later.

Take Jean Grey of the X-Men for example. She’s died and been reborn so many times in comics, that it’s almost become a running gag. After her first “death” in issue #137 of Uncanny X-Men, many readers were shocked that such a major character would be allowed to die. Back in 1983, death in comics was still a relatively rare occurrence. But Marvel editorial wanted to bring Jean back to absolve her of all evil deeds she committed during the famous Dark Phoenix storyline.

After a couple of years of leaving Jean dead, Marvel created a plotline where the Avengers find a strange pod lying on the bottom of Jamaica bay, which they then send to Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four for further investigation. During the investigation, the pod cracks open and Jean emerges, with no memory from her time as Dark Phoenix. After much probing of Jean’s mind, it is discovered that Jean was, in fact, approached by a cosmic psychic entity known as the Phoenix Force. The Phoenix Force copies Jean's physical form and merges with a portion of Jean’s soul/consciousness, while the “real” Jean remains in a coma-like state at the bottom of Jamaica Bay. The Phoenix Force winds up destroying planets and thousands upon thousands of people. Jean is ultimately exonerated of the evil deeds that she committed as Dark Phoenix. She goes on to found X-Factor with her original X-Men teammates. After a couple of issues of adjustment back in the land of the living, Jean is back to her regular superhero ways with little mention of the destruction she caused as Phoenix and later Dark Phoenix.

Perhaps comic book companies feel that readers will ultimately become disinterested with these characters and their higher states of being and awareness. Perhaps they feel that the essence of the character is being lost or perverted.

I, for one think it could add another design to the rich tapestry of these characters and present new trials and tribulations for them. Imagine, a Thor at the end of Ragnarok dying, evolving to a higher state and dealing with cosmic and high-level celestial beings rather than his usual rogues gallery of the Wrecking Crew, the Absorbing Man or the Juggernaut. Why not take a chance and add a new mythological layer to these already established characters?

I know I’d pay money to see that.

Image courtesy of

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Thought Of The Week

It comes as no shock that former baseball player Mike McGuire admitted using steroids for at least a decade including 1998, when he broke Roger Maris’ single season home run record. McGuire stated that he took steroids for “health purposes” and that he did not use them to increase his strength or bat speed. McGuire’s confession along with the confessions of other sports figures (like Tiger Woods), politicians, CEO’s, etc. that have fallen from grace, raises an interesting question about human behavior and the lengths that we will go to get ahead.

If given the opportunity, will the average person try to take the easy way out?

1) The average person is hard working and truthful and will always try to achieve his or her goals in as straightforward and honest a way as possible.

2) If given the opportunity to bend or break the rules without the chance of getting caught, the average person will take the opportunity even if he or she knows it’s wrong.

3) A person cheating, lying or breaking the rules will try to rationalize their actions to deflect blame or culpability.

4) The higher up a person is on the social, economic or political ladder, the more untouchable they feel making it easier for them to commit wrongdoing.

5) Other

List your choice of answer (or answers), or an alternative in the Comment section. If you pick answer #5, include an example as to why you picked "Other".

Mark McGuire image courtesy of Reuters.

Words Come Alive

When Should We Shift the POV?

Your character’s falling into a trap because he didn’t know his wife was waiting for him. You did — you were in her head in the previous chapter. That’s an example of when we should change the point of view (POV). If most editors advise shifts in POV only rarely in a novel, why do you often see shifts within the same chapter? Dare you ask when you should shift?

Much is written about POV because the device aids writers in character development and conflict setups. Yet, the many faces of how to use the device require examination. Many experts prefer one POV throughout although they will also see advantages in a shift, so what’s the guideline? Newcomers are advised to avoid the technique because the misuse comes across as confusing. Some editors advise to keep within one POV for a length of time, usually for the span of a chapter. Others allow a shift after a scene. So the answer must be related to time — right?

Not quite. The answer is more appropriately linked to the timing of when you want information shown about the conflict or characters. In a scene where information shows the protagonist hesitating to call the police because he fears their action from a previous encounter, that info has to come from his POV. That scene has to show him hesitating. You have to exist inside his head to understand his past thoughts.

Yet the interaction from that scene could spur the need to shift in the following scene. The protagonist’s friend doesn’t know about the reasons for the hesitation. You probably showed the friend in a confused state earlier. If you develop a new obstacle for the protagonist by having the friend confused about the hesitation, then the following scene could show the friend’s confusion. Now you’re inside the head of the friend because you want to show how he feels about that hesitation. You can’t be certain about the ideas of the protagonist because you’re not in his head. This could lead to a new direction for the friend.

Develop the POV to get inside the friend’s head from the timing of the information you develop about the conflict. Part of this setup reveals another aspect about the timing of the shift. You don’t want to shift POV unless you have a decent amount of space devoted to the character. You don’t want to get inside the character’s head just to answer a question from someone. You want to get inside that person because you have material only that person knows. Despite the confusion about the shifting, think about your timing of information. The timing of when to shift can depend on the information held by each character. Let that be the guide. Let the tool happen because you have the vital details needed to shift that POV.

Laughs Abound

Rochester Minn. — Mayo Clinic Builds Wings for Long Lines

Long lines of patients waiting for days have forced the famous Mayo Clinic to build extra wings. Passage of the new health care reforms now requires healthcare staff to check IDs to make sure that people are US citizens. ID checks also include food screening that places people who eat other items besides steak and potatoes as possible illegal aliens. Doctors have to require patients to spell the word abortion to determine that the person might have read material about the subject.

In the past, hospitals were required to deal with the illness plaguing the patient as a first priority. Now, interviewers of patients have to trace the lineage of the patient to verify their citizenship.

Hospitals now have free access to police tracking systems to verify the patient’s driver’s license or passport. But, doctors and nurses are spending extra time on phones to verify lineage through the Mormon system of record.

“We’d like to help diagnose patients,” said Dr. Russ Trated, “but we’re doing the work of an immigration department.”
Funds that were planned to be used to purchase a new diagnosing system that saves the lives of patients, had to be used instead to build the extra wings of the clinic just to house the waiting lines of people.

The clinic also lost half its staff during the first week when colds and flu were spread when the staff handled the brochures they collected from patients on abortion counseling. The coughing meds and flu shots had to be delayed, which resulted in mildly sick patients changing into bedridden ones. The clinic had to send their healthy staff members to Bed, Bath and Beyond for more supplies of beds and linens before they could treat the patients.

Meanwhile, the Mayo Clinic has spent $2 million on paper shredders to deal with the influx of the brochures. The shredders now take up most of the ER waiting room. The clinic has also found it necessary to buy dump trucks to take the debris out back for landfill.

“We’re glad this policy is working so well to insure that proper Americans use our resources,” said Senator Slim Wit.

Clinic security has increased to handle the disputes that arise from waiting patients who argue that their lineage is more American than others. Some security personnel had to escort former Daughters of the American Revolution out the door when they couldn’t answer who Betsy Ross was.

To make matters worse, some patients set up a stage in the waiting room to present plays about their grandfathers to boast about how much more American they were than other sick patients.

“My grandfather’s, grandfather’s grandfather came over on the Mayflower,” said A. Nal. “I deserve faster care than some schmo who came during the Civil War!”

Sirens sounded one day from the entourage of Hollywood celebs who wanted to turn the event into a reality show.

“I’ve been here for two days, now,” said Dee Esparate. “I was hoping for a transplant, but now I’ll need two, and I didn’t even get a part for the upcoming season.”

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fiction's Philosophy

Take It or Leave It

After watching James Cameron’s big budget epic Avatar, one of the central messages that Cameron leaves with us is that the human race is doomed to destroy the planet if we don’t change our violent, militaristic and ultimately, selfish ways. Much like the alien race in the movie, the Na’vi, we need to evolve to work with and heal our planet before all of our resources are completely used up. I dare to ask if Cameron was influenced by the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.

In Ishmael, the narrator of the story answered an ad in a newspaper placed by a teacher that was seeking a pupil who “must have a desire to save the world”. The narrator discovered the teacher, named Ishmael, was a gorilla with the ability to communicate telepathically. Through Ishmael, the narrator learned that throughout the history of the planet, there were those who were what he (Ishmael) called the Takers and those who were the Leavers.

The Takers, Ishmael explained, came into existence approximately 10,000 years ago (around the time of the Agricultural Revolution) and that they were basically the people that made up Europe, parts of Eastern and Western Asia and the Americas. The Takers considered themselves the pinnacle of human evolution and felt that the laws of nature and the laws governing all life did not apply to them. The Takers felt that they were meant to rule the planet and conquer it if necessary.

The Leavers were the “primitives of the planet” and were representative of all other cultures that were not agricultural or industrial powers. The Leavers took what they needed from the Earth and left the rest alone. In good times, they prospered, in bad times they may have starved. But they did not abuse the resources that were given to them and they let the natural process of evolution take its course.

In Avatar, we see the idea of the Takers as the RDA Corporation, as well as the humans that have come to the planet Pandora to help mine for a precious mineral called unobtanium (an interesting name which has the connotation of being unobtainable). The RDA Corporation have also employed military personnel to sweep the planet and remove any unwelcomed obstacles that might prevent them from mining. Obstacles to the Corporation included the presence of the planet’s natives, the Na’vi, whose homes and lands stood directly under a massive deposit of the mineral.

The Leavers were the native Na’vi, who lived in peace and harmony with the planet, and who also worshipped Eywa, a type of mother goddess. Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver), who was the head of the Avatar Program along with the rest of her team, could also be considered Leavers. Dr. Augustine argued with Parker Selfridge, the head of the RDA mining operation and with Colonel Miles Quaritch, the head of the military/security forces on Pandora, that the destruction of the Na’vi’s Hometree could have disastrous effects on the gigantic bio-botanical, neural network of Pandora. Of course both Selfridge and Quaritch were not interested in Augustine’s concerns and ultimately launched an attack on the Na’vi and Pandora’s ecosystem, when they (the Na’vi) refused to relocate.

While the representation of the Na’vi and the ways that they “commune” with their planet may be a bit simplistic and hokey (at times, especially at the end of Avatar, I felt as though I was watching a sci-fi version of The Lion King), the message that both Cameron and Quinn are trying to convey is an important one.

If we, the human race continue to plunder, invade and burn through the planet’s resources without giving anything back, we are doomed to extinction. If we continue to adopt a Taker mentality and horde resources without giving any to those less fortunate, we are doomed to failure. If we consider that we are the pinnacle of evolution, rather than realize that we are just a blip on the radar in the grand cosmic scheme of things, we will be unable to change our selfish, “taking” ways until it is too late.

In the real world we see examples of this Taker mentality everywhere we look…in Iraq, in counties like Darfur and Rwanda, and in the Amazon rain forests. As long as we continue to believe and perpetuate the myth (as Quinn describes) that we are superior to all other races, countries and/or species, free to dictate and do as we please, we, the human race will be impotent in stopping our inevitable destruction.

The message that Cameron and Quinn make quite eloquently, is that we are all a part of the planet, and as such, we have a responsibility to preserve it. Ultimately, it’s up to us whether we take up the mantle of responsibility, or we leave it.

"Avatar" image courtesy of
"Ishmael" image courtesy of

Lights, Camera, Action!

Trek Needs Exploration

In the recent Star Trek movie by director J.J. Abrams, when Captain Pike listens to James Kirk about an upcoming disaster, a contrast naturally is drawn to the conflict Captain Pike faced in the pilot of the original Trek. A glaring difference strikes the viewer between the original series and the new movie, daring us to ask why the writers missed opportunities in dealing with the conflicts. The conflict in the 2009 movie focuses on the action of destroying Nero’s threat, while the conflict of the past centered on how Pike defined the quality of life. We all know that fiction needs conflict, but that word can define more than action paced movement. Conflict means a confrontation between a character and an obstacle. That obstacle can be how he copes with his world or himself.

The core of the world of Star Trek always sought to look at science fiction as a way to use philosophy to understand others and the forces within the world. Pike’s disabled body in the Menagerie episodes of the original series allowed creator Gene Roddenberry to focus on how Pike could accept a world of his imagination rather than reality. The conflict showed Pike’s struggle with living in a type of wheelchair with a lover who was equally disabled. His conflict led him to view imagination as a vehicle to surpass his limitations.
Roddenberry always asked questions about, what is sentience, how does a person know he is alive, how should a person interfere with others, and how does the definition of slavery take on new meanings as technology increases.

Any version of the world of Trek can play with various conflicts, expand alternative universes, it can even change facts that are part of the characters’ background. All of that can be achieved as long as an internal consistency exists. But to carry the name of Trek, the story should retain the core focus of Roddenberry — the philosophical exploration of life.

The 2009 movie could have explored those issues by looking at how Kirk transformed himself from a rebellious youth into a leader, or at how Spock toiled with having emotion and at how displaced Vulcans coped with the loss of their home world. Instead, the movie focused on the active conflict of a space opera through a series of quick moving events to find and destroy Nero.

How does a rebellious youth become a leader? The movie introduces us to the young character of Kirk who defies authority and only joins Star Fleet because of a prodding from Pike. Yet he quickly becomes a concerned leader who cares about others. He grows to analyze key details and decides how to save others, a characteristic of selflessness. How did he transform himself? What inner anguish did he experience? How did he accomplish those changes? All we needed was a scene or two to show reasons for that transformation. Yet that scene did not emerge in the most recent Trek movie.

How does Spock use his emotion with his logic during a crisis? We saw Spock being alienated as a child on Vulcan, reluctantly giving a kiss to Uhura and swaying one way then another in making a decision on how to counter Nero. But the ultimate emotional breakdown, that forces him to relinquish command, happens because he is compromised as a Vulcan when his homeland is destroyed. The exploration of how to deal with the emotion is missing. The questions the Doctor from Voyager or Data from The Next Generation asked about how to use emotions does not take place with Spock. There was a chance to explore meanings in life. But the movie missed the opportunity.

How does a Vulcan society face the devastation of their world? Does a group that prides itself on logic set the tone of systematically reconstructing their culture? Do they resort to a type of super patriotism that questions all those not of their group as potential enemies? Do they build a rage that could change their commitment to logic? None of these issues were explored.

The 2009 movie excels in a fast paced series of action that shows conflict between Kirk and Spock, Kirk and Nero and Kirk and Bones. The audience is treated to a whirlwind of activity from evading a giant ship, a singularity, giant insects and a black hole. But the conflicts that occur within people are as valid a story as the movement through space. Those elements could have been included without taking away from the tone of the new action, and with little added footage. Tackling the legacy of Star Trek requires more than just making a space opera. It means going where few movie philosophers dare to go.

"Star Trek" image courtesy of

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Behind The Mask

Weird, or Not Weird, - That Is The Question.

Characters such as Superman, Batman and Spiderman have been around for decades and have become a part of our collective consciousness, but what about characters such as Super Shamou, Badman or La Donna Ragna? Unless you lived and grew up in Canada, Mexico or Italy, you probably wouldn’t know that these are all imitations of the above icons. If someone gave you a comic book called Hansi, the Girl Who Loved the Swatiska or The Two Faces of Communism or even Chaplains at War, would you be offended or intrigued? These are just some of the questions raised in the book Holy Sh*t, The World’s Weirdest Comic Books by Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury. Unusual or “different” comics have been around for decades, but were these books simply weird, or were they trying to say something more?

From their inception, comics and comic book characters have been a reflection of society and the cultural and political mores of generation upon generation. Characters such as Captain America and The Invaders were created as propaganda tools to help garner support for the United States during World War II. The Incredible Hulk was a response to the Cold War as well as the military buildup going on between the United States and the Soviet Union. It goes to reason that writers and artists from other countries would create their own heroes or heroines to speak out against the happenings and injustices that they were seeing around them.

One such example was Octobriana by Czech writer Petr Sadecky. The character Octobriana, was essentially, a Mongol version of Wonder Woman. Sadecky created this Amazon as a tool to criticize the Soviet Union and create anti-Soviet propaganda. In The Great Society comic book, created by D.J. Arneson and Tony Tallarico, President Lyndon Johnson becomes Super LBJ and fights supervillains such Gaullefinger (based on France’s Charles DeGaulle) and Dr. Nyet (based on the Soviet Union’s Nikita Kruschev). Fighting alongside Super LBJ were Colonel America (Barry Goldwater) and Captain Marvelous (Hubert Humphrey).

Yes, some of the ideas and concepts from the comics listed in The World’s Weirdest Comic Books are definitely weird, but the reason why many of these comics received the label of being “out there”, was the fact that the writers of these comics were addressing ideas and subject matter that was thought of as “taboo” or being a part of the counter-culture at the time. Ideas such as, animal cruelty, the dangers of smoking, bondage or other alternative sexual lifestyles, racial stereotyping and even global warming were tackled back in eras where the general population was either not ready, or not mature enough, to embrace them.

While many of the above comics where quite shocking back in the days when they first came out, some of these same comics seem strange if looked at from a more “modern” perspective. One comic in particular, Just Married that came out in 1973, dealt with the dicey subject of inter-faith relationships. Oh, the horror!

Ultimately, what’s "weird" to one person, group or country may be commonplace to another. The World’s Weirdest Comic Books shows us that although — in some cases — we as a people and a society have evolved politically, sociologically, emotionally, and spiritually, there’s still more work to be done. And because of that, there will never be an absence of comics that shock, scare and jolt our collective psyches.

"Holy Sh*t! The World's Weirdest Comic Books" image courtesy of

Worlds Meet

Jericho's Terrorist

An episode of the Jericho television series called “One Man’s Terrorist” brings us into the mind of an average person who becomes a terrorist. The scenes in the episode also offer ideas on how we can deal with a potential terrorist threat. Often we’ve heard about the strong man approach about defeating the enemy, or the language from Republicans that we can’t appear weak to the terrorist. Too often we hear that solutions of social methods fail to understand the terrorist. We are told that supplying food and shelter or jobs have nothing to do with decreasing the ranks of the terrorist community. Maybe the real question is why a person becomes so violent.

A realistic scenario of society breaking down occurs in Jericho. The series shows how a Kansas town copes with the aftermath of such a breakdown. A series of nuclear strikes has wiped out key US cities, and isolated towns are left to fend for law and order, food and power. The show viewed the ways resources are managed to help the community. Key characters such as the mayor, medical professionals, a farmer and a store owner were focused on to show how decisions about resources could affect the entire society.

In the terrorist episode, the mayor believes he can not lead his town through the winter because the numbers on the blackboard of food rationing show the people will starve. His solution is to send a group of refugees, the town recently saved, back out on the road. The refugees were staying in a makeshift shelter. The road meant certain death because of roving outlaws, the lack of animals to hunt or existence of shelter from the cold. But the mayor could not save everyone, so at least he tried to save his town.

The terrorist point of view was shown through the eyes of the refugees. Maybe they react to unusual pressure. An incident arose when one refugee tried pleading with the mayor to reconsider the forced eviction. When the mayor pulled out a gun to show his authority, a scuffle broke out that resulted in the mayor being accidentally wounded. The police then treated the refugee as a terrorist.

But we lost the real cause of why one becomes a terrorist, as the argument shifted away from the withholding of resources to one of respect for authority. The change took away key items of fact. The refugees were not just taking from the town. They were gathering wood for fire. One was even serving as a doctor in the town clinic. The refugees were quartered in a shelter even though the town housed many empty homes of people who left before the nuclear strike, probably never to return. But that was private property so it could not be shared with the refugees. The ideas of sharing and the value of property over lives presents a special philosophical view on why terrorists face unusual pressure.

The incident also addresses how to defuse a terrorist in the making. In one particular scene, a town character cries out to a group of people to share their homes with the refugees. She prods and cajoles until many in the crowd agree. This takes place after she is threatened in her home by a refugee who waves a knife at her. When she sees how he wanted glue to close a worn-out pair of shoes rather than take a pair from her son, she sees that this is an average person who desires self respect. She realizes this person has been thrown into a desperate situation, almost as desperate as the mayor who wielded the gun.

Not all terrorists are as easily placated as those in the episode, but we were seeing the images of people in the start of the process of becoming the hardened killers who strike around the world. These were glimpses of a Palestinian, a poppy farmer in Afghanistan or a Sunni…maybe a Shi'ite whose home lies in rubble.

Maybe the difference between the terrorist and victim is who is in authority. Maybe the way to defeat the terrorist is to strike at the causes of the process. Supply food, shelter and hope and the ranks of the terrorist community shrink.

"Jericho" image courtesy of