Friday, July 04, 2014

swamp thing, volume 6

The final collection of Alan Moore's award-winning work on "Swamp Thing" finds everyone's favorite plant elemental trying to make it back home.

After five previous volumes of some fairly intense storytelling, this anthology contains instead a series of short episodes as the Swamp Thing's spirit jumps from one planet to the next, encountering some of the spacefaring characters owned by DC Comics, such as Adam Strange, Metron and a member of the Green Lantern corps. Unlike the previous, more complex stories, these are fairly straightforward fare.

Which isn't to say that they aren't good; Moore has always been one of the brightest lights in comic books, and in the 1980s, he was at the top of his game. It's clear from these stories that he was having fun, imagining unusual settings to place the Swamp Thing in, and along the way experimenting with the storytelling medium he was using. (There is one story told from the perspective of a sentient planet-size ship that encounters the Swamp Thing and traps him in her core for a brief time.)

But it's only after the Swamp Thing gets back to Earth that things get truly engaging again, as Moore returns to his familiar environmental themes. And like every good writer does, he leaves the reader with something to consider on those themes. While in space, the Swamp Thing discovered he could save a world from complete environmental collapse and ruin, and now on earth he is considering the possibility of doing the same here, until he realizes that humanity would simply squander the new Eden he gives them, and continue to blight it over and over again. It's better, he decides, to sit it out, and hope that humanity will wake up to its responsibilities on its own.

And on that, despite the horror we have seen over the last six volumes, Moore leaves us with the hope that we are willing to contribute, and the effort we are willing to make that hope real.

swamp thing, volume 5

I had never read much Swamp Thing until recently, when I finally got around to reading Alan Moore's classic take on the character.

3536661-4126267845-Swamp[1]As superheroes go, Swamp Thing really doesn't bring much new to the table. A brilliant scientist named Alec Holland, he was turned into a monster by a horrible accident in his lab in the Louisiana bayou that turned him into an intelligent mass of swamp life. It was a fairly ho-hum origin story until Alan Moore took over the title and started to explore the horror story potential around a being so literally plugged into the environment.

This, the fifth volume of Moore's seminal run on "Swamp Thing," marks a shift in the storytelling from the four previous volumes. Until now, "Swamp Thing" has been a comic showcasing environmental and social horror, covering topics like deforestation and overconsumption, nuclear and toxic waste, misogyny and domestic violence and America's gun culture. Volume 5 is where it becomes a love story.

As the collection begins, Abigail Cable, the Swamp Thing's human lover, has been charged with crimes against nature because of her relationship with him, jumped bail and fled to Gotham City. When he discovers, he follows her to Gotham and ultimately brings the city to a halt and (naturally) comes into conflict with Batman until his lover is released. As Batman later remarks, "I think all of us were awed by a love that could stop a city."

This collection continues many of the environmental themes of Moore's earlier "Swamp Thing" stories, but it also delves into the psyche of an urban jungle and its powerlessness before the might of nature. Even as he tells the story of the love between the Swamp Thing and Abby, Moore shines his light into the emptiness of America's cities and the longing at the heart of humanity for a return to the Green and walking in step with nature once more.

If you're looking for a superhero comic for your children, "Swamp Thing" isn't it. But if you want an intelligent story that gives you something to think about after you finish, you should read this, and the previous four volumes.

Friday, June 27, 2014

'small gods'

"Small Gods" is Terry Pratchett's rather humorous and insightful take on the relationship among gods, religion, and their worshipers.
9780061092176[1]
Set on his fantastical Discworld, "Small Gods" tells the story of the Great God Om, whose church-state has become so powerful that it is the fear of a dozen other nations along the coast, and the terror of the people who live under its iron rule.

Om, who previously has appeared as a raging people trampling the infidels, has just incarnated and found himself as a creature no more terrifying than a turtle, and with only one believer. The difficulty, Om discovers, is that as the Church of Om has grown, people are paying more attention to their priests and church authorities than they are to him. And of course, the flip side of this is that Om never paid any attention to what his previous prophets told people about him or in his name. He had no idea they were murderous and violent people; he just wanted to be worshiped.

Things change as the god grows in understanding, as his lone worshiper ascends into the role of prokphet, and the leaders of his church-state come to face payback from the other nations for all that they have done in Om's name.

Pratchett's a humanist, as becomes obvious to anyone reading his critique of gods and religion; but he's also a gifted humorist, as anyone familiar with any of his Discworld novels will know. Like his other Discworld novels, "Small Gods" is a book that satisfies at many levels, and always leaves the toughtful reader with something to consider, even after the fifth or sixth reading.

'maus'

"Maus" is a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel of the Holocaust, written by the son of a survivor.

Maus[1]The novel tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman in the years leading up to WWII and the Holocaust. Interwoven with the story is the tale of the hero's twilight years, where he has become a bitter and difficult old man, and his son, Art, tries to bridge the gap between the two of them by trying to understand his father's experiences. The younger Spiegelman at times uses the narrative to offer commentary on the medium he's telling it in, and even expresses doubts as to whether the book adds anything of value to Holocaust literature.

To that, I'd have to add my own unequivocal "yes." Although "Maus" chronicles the same horror found in books like "Night" and movies like "Night and Holocaust," it also expresses something about the resilience of the human spirit. Vladek Spiegelman makes no claims that he and his wife survived the Holocaust because of any special merit on their part, but his story also shows a man who seized opportunity when he could, and not only kept himself alive but managed to give hope and assistance to other Jews during the darkest period of the 20th century.

And while Vladek's story conveys much misery and loss, it ends on the happy note of reunification, as he finds his wife after the war has ended, and the two are able to start a new family.

For all the horror and nightmare of the Holocaust and other periods where we give way to hatred and fear, and the other woes released from Pandora's box, "Maus" reminds us that hope also is at loose in the world, and cannot be extinguised even by the likes of Hitler and those who support them.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

tragedy

Yesterday Middle Daughter made fliers for a Student Council-run bake sale. Using ComicSans.

I can't help but wonder where I went wrong. If I were a better father, this never would have happened.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Blogging through the Bible: Tower of Babel

Let me state right up front that I don't have much to say about the Table of Nations.

Following the narrative of Noah's Deluge in Genesis 6-9, the redactor gives us one of the Bible's genealogies, this one revealing a partial family tree of Noah, beginning with his three sons (but not their wives, who also were on the Ark) and following the line of descent from Noah's boys down to the peoples whom the book's earliest audiences would have been familiar with.

As Bible stories go, this is one you'd have to do a lot of study to appreciate, and one you'd need to muster a lot of enthusiasm to find interesting. It reminds me in a way of books like Virgil's “The Aeneid,” or Geoffrey of Monmouth's “History of the Kings of Britain.” In both those books, the authors traced their people's ancestry back to antiquity and made historically dubious claims that their people were descended from the Trojans, and therefore much greater than other peoples.

There's a bit of that at work here. The author of Genesis 10 (possibly the Priestly source, given that the chapter is a genealogy) names three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham, whom Noah cursed in the previous chapter, is named as the father of several nations that figure rather negatively in the history of Israel and Judah, among them Nineveh, Mizrayim (Egypt), the Philistines and the people of Canaan.

Japheth, for his part, is listed as the ancestor of peoples who lived north of the historical borders of Israel and Judah, what we now would call Indo-European; and Shem, of course, is the big one, from whom come all the Semitic races, including the Hebrews, the Assyrians, the Arameans, and a few others.

Chapter 10 relates the familiar story of the Tower of Babel, which comes from the Yahwist source. I've read some scholars have linked the Tower of Babel to the ziggurauts of ancient Sumeria. Some small basis for that association may lie in the Table of Nations, which mentions that Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, became a mighty hunter and established a kingdom that began in Babel, Erech and Accad, all in the land of Shinar, the biblical name for Sumer.

Erech itself is another transliteration of the Sumerian city Uruk, one of the oldest cities ever built, and home to the mythological Gilgamesh. There is also a Sumerian tale about “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta,” which also relates how languages became confused. Since Chapter 12 relates how Abram came from the land of Erech, it seems reasonable to assume that the author of this passage drew on a storied tradition held in common with Enmerkar and the Lord of Arrata.”

At one level, the story of the Tower of Babel is etiological in purpose; that is, the Genesis narrative includes the story as a means of explaining where all the different human languages come from. But, given its placement – it comes just after the story of the Deluge, and between the Table of the Nations and the genealogy linking Shem to Abram – the author had a deeper purpose than merely explaining why everyone doesn't speak ancient Hebrew.

So what exactly are we to believe has God so worried that he needs to bust humanity up into a bunch of ethnolingiostic groups? Given that chapters six to nine showed God flooding the entire planet, I would argue that it's outside the bounds of reasonable interpretation to claim that God was wringing his hands over the architectural enterprises of the Sumerians.

What the text does indicate is divine concern that human ambition and accomplishment will be unlimited, if God does not confuse human speech. As the story falls immediately after the genealogy of Ham and Japheth and immediately before the lineage of Shem, the implication is that ethnic division is also a point of this narrative, which we will see more of immediately afterward in Chapter 12, the Yahwist account of the covenant with Abram.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Prayer deconstructed

Prayer is one of those fundamental Christian disciplines. If you want to grow in understanding, we're told, we have to pray.

Of course, given that we believe in an all-knowing and loving deity, it's understandable that there is some confusion over the purpose of prayer. If God is all-knowing, are we really telling him something he doesn't already know, or we like a difficult colleague with a knack for stating the obvious. ("Look, the wall is blue today!") If God is all-knowing and loving, isn't asking for something a bit like a 3-year-old asking for the shoes her mother is already getting her?

And if we're praying to gain understanding, then why the heck don't we ever hear God answer us? (Or, for that matter, why do we check ourselves into a hospital once he does?)

These are deep and complicated topics, and I'm afraid that all I can share are the meager insights I have gathered over the years, like the unwanted scraps of food that have been shoved under the table for the dog to eat. (Note to young readers: Dogs really don't go for gelatin salad.)

Here are some popular phrases about prayer, and what they mean:
  1. "I'll pray for you." Means: That sounds awful. "My child has just discovered recreational pooping, and I'm out of baby wipes." "Oh, wow. I'll pray for you." Please note that they probably won't pray for you.
  2. "I'll pray for you." Means: You're going to hell on a pogo stick. "I don't think C.S. Lewis was anywhere near as good a writer as J.R.R. Tolkien." "I'll pray for you." Please note that they probably will pray for you, with unmatched fervor.
  3. "You should pray about that." Means: Pray about it until you agree with me. "I'm thinking of being a stay-at-home dad, since my wife makes more than I do." "You should pray about that."
  4. "I have a prayer request." Means: Juicy gossip is on the way. "I have a prayer request. I just found out that Heather is pregnant. The poor woman doesn't even have a boyfriend! She's really going to need God to help her through this difficult period."
  5. "I have an unspoken prayer request." Means: This one is so good I'll have to share it discreetly. Come see me afterward.
  6. "I've been praying about this, and I really feel God is telling me ..." Means: If you disagree, then you are disagreeing with God and are headed to hell on a pogo stick. "I've been praying about this, and I really feel that God wants you to come to a hotel room with me." Run.
Hope this helps.

Monday, June 24, 2013

'Anthem'

Like many other students entering high school in the fall, Oldest Daughter has a list of books she is supposed to read this fall.

As I suspect is true for many of her peers, one of the books on her summer reading list is "Anthem."

Written by Ayn Rand, “Anthem” is a hymn to the importance of the individual, set in a dystopic future where a totalitarianism has all but eradicated individual choice and even individual identity. The protagonist is a man named Equality 7-2521, although he later chooses the name Prometheus, because he hopes to return the spark of individual value to a world that has lost it.

“Anthem” is Rand's first work to advance her Objectivist philosophy, which grew in large part as a response to the Bolshevik Revolution during her childhood, and her family's ensuing loss of wealth and comfort. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the dystopia in "Anthem" is a grotesquerie of collectivism. In the course of the story, Equality 7-2521 recounts the various sins he commits: a desire to learn and to understand the world, rather than being content with being a street sweeper, the job that was assigned for him by the committee; singing and being happy, because everyone is already happy in this dystopic paradise, and he should not presume to be happier than his fellows; feeling and friendship and love for specific people, because that means he favors some people over others; and of course, being taller and healthier than others, because difference is wrong.

In that sense, "Anthem" has an empowering message for teens and other young readers who may feel social pressure from their own peers to be something other than what they want to be, or to do things that don't interest them. It is a good thing for people to pursue their own dreams, forget their own identities, and conform to others' expectations for themselves, rather than to forge their own identities and pursue the things that interest them.

But one of the things that irks me about Rand's philosophy, especially as I've seen it applied by libertarians in recent years, is that it rejects the notion of responsibility to one another. (Equality 7-2521 is pretty clear on this point in Chapter 11.) The other thing is that, particularly in books like "Atlas Shrugged," Rand inverts the order of the world and claims despite all logic that it is the wealthy and the powerful who are oppressed and exploited by society, and not the people whose hard work makes their success and fortune possible.

In order for a society to truly function and not come apart at the seams in a generation, it is necessary for us to respect the inherent worth we have as human beings created in the Imago Dei, something Equality 7-2521 explicitly and repeatedly rejects in his grand-sounding but ultimately self-serving essays at the end of the book.

Ironically, as  Equality 7-2521 becomes the the first of Rand's characters to espouse this worldview, he claims for himself the name "Prometheus." Unlike Rand's sympathetic but ultimately unlikeable hero, the original Prometheus was driven by compassion for others and a concern for their welfare that came before his own. By bringing fire from Olympus to Earth, Prometheus earned the ire of Zeus and for a thousand years was tormented daily by an eagle that came to tear out his liver, which would regrow every night so that he could suffer anew in the morning.

Which Prometheus would you say is the better, and more moral role model?