Friday, August 15, 2014

'the killing joke'

First published 25 years ago, "The Killing Joke" may be one of the three finest Batman stories ever told. It's certainly the finest ever written about the Joker.

Killingjoke[1]Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland, "The Killing Joker" has the Batman starting to boil over in his frustration with his green-haired foe. He knows how Harvey Dent became Two-Face, and that all his decisions come down to the flip of a coin. He knows that the Edward Nigma is the Riddler, and he understands the Riddler's compulsion to lead people on a chase. Ra's al Ghul, the Royal Flush Gang, Poison Ivy, the Penguin -- Batman gets the entire Gotham City rogues gallery, and knows how they work and why. But the Joker remains a mystery to him, and Batman wants to change that before it becomes too late and one of them kills the other.

The Joker, of course, has other plans.

In one of the most iconic scenes from the comic, the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon at point-blank range and paralyzes her. This event, which sidelined Barbara Gordon from being Batgirl for the next 25 years of comics, wasn't even the main attraction as far as the Joker was concerned. His goal is simply to drive her father, the police commissioner, insane.

"The Killing Joke" is the comic that cemented the Joker in readers' minds as a nihilistic madman, and one of the central themes of the comic is how far one bad day can take a person past the edge. Without knowing the details, the Joker alludes to the events that drove Bruce Wayne to become Batman, and assumes that Commissioner Gordon also has been pushed over the edge by what the Joker has done.

But what makes the story worth reading is that Moore depicts the bad day that pushed the Joker himself over the edge, when all his hopes and dreams came crashing down, when the bottom fell out of his world, and he plunged into the void.

Around the same time that DC Comics published "The Killing Joke," it also published Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Batman: Year One," which showcased the endpoint and genesis of Bruce Wayne's career as the Caped Crusader, and that established him as an antihero with mental health issues of his own. Add "The Killing Joke" to the mix, and there's nothing else DC has published that comes even close to their level. 

'a new kind of christianity'

51Zo53goj7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Brian McLaren is a pastor and well-known voice in what has been called the emerging church, a movement among post-evangelical Christians away from the popular stereotypes of moral scolds, right wing politics, and generally unpleasant behaviors and ideologies.

"A New Kind of Christianity" is one of McLaren's attempts not only to deconstruct some of the more difficult aspects of evangelical Christianity, such as its belief in the eternal torment of those outside the camp, but also to understand better what Jesus and his disciples meant in their original first-century context. From there, he projects forward, to how this different understanding could affect the relationship churches and Christians have with the larger society, with members of other religions, with gays and lesbians, and so on.

McLaren begins his book by tracing the influence of Greek philosophy on a collection of writings that came from a Hebrew culture with radically different views of evil, God and human nature. From there, he makes the argument that some doctrines held firmly by many evangelicals reflect a perspective that would have seemed alien and baffling to biblical authors and their audience, such as the belief in the eternal, conscious torment of sinners at the hands of a loving God.

After this and related arguments -- for example, that Jesus should be the lens Christians understand other biblical writers through, rather than viewing Jesus through the lens of Paul or later philisophers -- McLaren lays out a sweeping ethos for how he believes the church should address social issues such as same-sex marriage, war and the military-industrial complex, religious pluralism, environmental responsibility, and so on.

The book is challenging, and thought-provoking; and even among those not inclined to agree with McLaren and his conclusions, the questions he raises should lead to deep and meaningful discussions.

'afterlife with archie'

I expect that just about everyone in the United States knows about Archie Andrews and the rest of its gang. Even if you didn't grow up watching "The Archies" in syndication, it's impossible to avoid the Archie digests at the supermarket. Archie Comics aren't as big as Spider-man, but they're every bit as much a part of America.


And that's what makes "Afterlife with Archie" such a treat. In a nutshell, Sabrina the Teenage Witch does something with good intentions, and inadvertently brings the zombie Apocalypse to Riverdale. Before long the zombies are chowing down at Pop's Diner; they're coming to the high school dance; and Archie and his gang are running for their lives, while hell comes nipping at their heels.

There's an undeniable comic appeal to a story that blends two pictures as contradictory as the horrorific Walking Dead and the idyllic Riverdale, and "Afterlife with Archie" definitely enjoys that appeal. But aside from the goofy charm that comes from such a juxtaposition, the story itself is well told. Betty and Veronica are still rivals for Archie's affections, but with a sharper edge than usually shows in traditional Archie tales; Reggie is still selfish and self-absorbed, but with graver consequences than before; and other, minor characters from the Archie universe emerge with new and sometimes more disturbing wrinkles than they otherwise ever might have shown.

Throughout the entire volume, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa manages to create a zombie story that is both unnerving and thoroughly human, as Archie and members of his supporting cast come face to face with soulless monsters who used to be loved ones, and must make the horrible choices they need in order to live.

If you're a teen or older, and you have only vague recollections (or better) of Archie and his ilk, do yourself a favor and read this collection when you can. It's scary fun.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

the blue monster

Like the rest of the country last night, I was shocked to hear the news that Robin Williams had died.

Williams, whom I grew up watching on "Mork & Mindy" and followed through movies such as "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Dead Poets Society" and "Good Will Hunting," died in his California home on Aug. 11. Reports indicate that his death was an apparent suicide by hanging. News articles relate that he had been struggling with depression.

528483-Depression-1364630455-842-640x480[1]Not surprisingly, I've heard a few people chime in with opinions on how selfish he was for killing himself, or other similar comments. I want to ask, do you even know what depression is, or what it feels like?

Depression is not being sad, or blue, or grieving for a period. Depression is a void. It's a void that starts out small and slowly, but as things fall into that void and disappear, the void grows larger.

The first thing to go is your happiness, so that things that once brought you pleasure now do nothing for you. Have a job you love? Soon it becomes rote drudgery. A hobby? It's pointless. The tiny little things that made you laugh suddenly don't seem funny any more, and you become a little grumpier when there's not as much left to lift you out of the slough.

The next thing to go is your joy. Happiness is fleeting and on the surface, but joy has deep roots that go all the way to your core. People like your wife and your kids bring you joy; your faith in God may be a source of joy to you. As your depression grows and your joy falls into the void, life itself begins to hurt.

It hurts so bad that you can't see anything worth living for. Every difference of opinion with a friend or a loved one blows up into something too large for words, and then you're left with a handful of shame for overreacting, made only worse when people you love start to demand, "What's the matter with you?"

Once the present has fallen into the void, the future goes next, because there is no longer any hope that things will get better. The past follows soon after, because you can't believe that it could ever have been that good in the first place. By this point, the void has swallowed everything, and all that's left for it to swallow is you.

Depression is patient. It can wait, and it does. It follows you minute after painful minute, day after exhausting day, week after wearying week, until time becomes a ravenous crocodile with years like teeth that will tear into your soul. And as the crocodile follows you, the void beneath you begins to speak.

"It doesn't have to be like this," it says. "You can stop the pain now."

There are always people who say that you can ask for help, and that's true. You can ask for help, if you think it'll be there; but depression robs you of the ability to see help. You can't ask for help if you don't believe that help exists. You can't ask for help if your life is so miserable that you can't convince yourself that anybody cares about you, or ever has. You can't ask for help if you have no reason to believe that anything can ever get better.

There are other people who say that depression is an act of supreme selfishness, and disregard for how others feel. Of course, when you wrapped in depression and it smothers you like a blanket, you can't see the others. You don't know that they're there, that they care, or that your death will be anything but a tremendous relief. People in the throes of depression aren't trying to make other people hurt; they're trying to stop their own pain.

Some people are saying that Robin Williams was a coward for killing himself. I don't believe that. I believe he was exhausted from dealing with something that he had no idea how to deal with further. I believe he made the wrong choice, and I wish to God he could have found the help he needed, but I don't hate him. My heart goes out to his family and his friends, who now must contend with the empty questions of why, and whether they could have done anything to save him.

Robin Williams is gone now; and I pray that he'll never feel depressed again.

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.
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" 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


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.