Monday, December 31, 2012

ultimate spider-man

I can't help it. I love the new Spider-man, and I can't stop defending him out in public.

Last year, Marvel Comics announced it was introducing a new character to fill the shoes Spider-man. This new web-swinger is named Miles Morales, and unlike Peter Parker, he's not white. He's half-black and half-Hispanic, and represents part of Marvel's overall shift at Ultimate Comics to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of their superheroes.

Predictably, people were upset about the change when it was announced. People complained that Marvel was getting rid of the traditional Spider-man, and accused the company of kotowing to political correctness.

A few things surprised me about this. First is that Miles is not replacing the Spider-man who Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created in 1962. He's replacing the Spider-man whom Brian Michael Bendis created in 2000 for Marvel's Ultimate Comics line.

Second is that even if he were, so what? It's not like there is a dearth of white superheroes, and death in comic books is about as permanent as a haircut. If Marvel can create a superhero who speaks to the experience of its readers of color, I'm all for it.

Spider-man as a character has grown stale because of his pop culture success. He's not allowed to age, to marry and have children or otherwise significantly change, because the editorial powers at Marvel would rather milk their cash cow until it goes dry than risk killing it. Reinterpreting the character as an inner-city person of color rather than as a white teen from Queens is bold and opens up new avenues of storytelling.

What amazes me is that people still are upset about it, more than a year later. Two people at the comics shop the other day criticized Miles when they saw I was buying my daughter a collection of Ultimate Spider-man that included Peter. A friend of mine complained about him last night. Hel-lo, people! Miles rocks.

Miles has a lot of the traits that have always made Spider-man a hero, aside from the obvious spider powers like strength, spider-sense and sticking to walls. In many ways he's every bit as reluctant and outcast a hero as Peter is.

Peter first tried to make money with his powers, and only realized how he was wasting his gifts when a burglar he had failed to stop earlier, later killed his Uncle Ben. Miles used his powers to save some children from a fire, but was so unsettled by the experience that he didn't use them again until after Peter had died.

But the defining characteristic, the one thing that makes Miles stand out from Peter and makes him worth reading is this: He's not Peter. The Ultimate Peter Parker is dead, killed in a battle with the Green Goblin, and remembered by the entire city as a hero.

Miles is trying to honor Spider-Man's memory, but it's going to be ages before he's able to step out from under the shadow of his predecessor and gains legitimacy in the eyes of the New York. (And from some comic book fans, obviously.)

And just as importantly, Miles knows that he can die. One Spider-man already has, and unlike in the mainstream Marvel Universe, the Ultimate Universe doesn't seem to have a revolving door on heaven.

If Miles were simply a case of brown-washing -- if he were from Queens and had the exact same origin story and personality as Peter -- I'd probably agree with my friend who dissed Miles before I explained his story to her. But he's not a black Hispanic superhero for the sake of having one, and when Marvel debuted him, they didn't just create a black Peter Parker. They created a new character, one worth reading for his own sake, and one worth starring in his own movie some time.

He's also a racial minority, a bright kid from a neighborhood a lot worse than the one Peter Parker grew up in. As far as I'm concerned, that's just icing on the cake.

Miles isn't just a black Spider-man. As far as I'm concerned, he is Spider-man, hands-down: fresher and more fun to read about than Peter Parker has been in years.

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 30, 2012


I'm trying to pare down the amount of stuff in my house lately. A few days ago, I found a copy of "Angelwalk" that I bought twenty-four years ago.

Written by Roger Elwood, "Angelwalk" is probably one of the angriest books I've ever read. It tells the story of Darien, an angel who considered Lucifer a friend before the war in heaven, and who now is exploring the world of men to see what Lucifer has been doing since his departure. When he finishes his journey, if Darien concludes that God was wrong, then the war will be over and God will allow Satan and all the fallen angels to return.

It's certainly an unusual setup, and I've got to give Elwood points for creativity in the concept. Still, if you thought the next 189 pages would deal with symptoms of humanity's brokenness, like our petty-mindedness, our indifference to the suffering of others, our sometimes open lust for power, or even some big sins like the exploitation of illegal immigrants, or human trafficking, you'd be mistaken.

"Angelwalk" was written for an evangelical or fundamentalist readership, and as such it is preoccupied with issues that offend those readers. Thus we're treated to a narration of an abortion from the perspective of one being aborted; we attend a funeral for a gay man and get to overhear attendees discussing having an orgy and possibly involving the corpse, and so on. (Elwood is vague on whether this scene occurs in Sodom or in San Francisco.)

There's no sense of moderation here, not even an aside that this particularly abhorrent sort of behavior is extremely deviant. There are two groups of people Darien encounters in his travels: the utterly depraved, and evangelical Christians.

This sort of strident, circle-the-wagons sort of thinking, which views those outside the evangelical church as abhorrent and a threat to decent church-going sorts, is outrageous. I'd like to think Elwood didn't mean for the book to be taken seriously -- but given the content of later books in this series, and the warm reception I recall this book getting in the late 1980s, it's safe to say that he did.

Because it deals with angels and demons, and the effects of sin on our world, "Angelwalk" when it was published regularly was compared to C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters" as a book about spiritual warfare. If only that comparison were warranted.

Lewis' book, which purports to be a series of letters from a devil to a junior tempter on how to lead a man away from faith in Christ, is at times witty and thought-provoking, and always thoroughly original. The difficulties faced by the unnamed human in the book are common enough to the human race, and easily related to.

"Angelwalk" pretends to raise questions about God's justice and mercy, but the examples of sin the book presents are so extreme that its answers are meaningless; and the book is so full of anger that there's nothing to think about, nothing to remember, nothing to savor or comment on.

Ultimately, the book is rather like a hellhouse, that horrifying evangelical alternative to Halloween. If you're inclined to agree with the message of "Angelwalk," then you'll like it. If you don't, you're probably going to be revolted, feel a little sick after reading it, and never want to talk again to whoever convinced you it was a good idea to try it in the first place.

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

quitting time

I've quit Facebook.

I've laughed at witty things my friends have said or shared, but it's time to stop. I've enjoyed sharing things of my own that people have liked, and I've enjoyed seeing the odd thing or two that I write go viral. But at the end of the day, I've had to add up the time I've spent on Facebook and other web sites, and ask myself if there aren't better ways to spend my time.

And so I quit. At the moment, my account is only deactivated, but if I don't change my mind by Jan. 5, I'm probably going to take the nuclear option and close my account entirely.

The day after I deactivated my Facebook account was Christmas. That morning I got up, I ate breakfast with my family and we unwrapped presents. My children and I played with their new toys together, we talked about what they had been reading lately, and at the end of the day I shredded some old financial documents before going to bed.

It was a refreshing day, filled with family and with real-world experiences. In the days since, I've watched “Doctor Who” with my children, played with the youngest, and read a book. I've even written a blog entry, in what I hope is the first break in a long and painful logjam.

It's not a change I expect everyone will want to make. My friend Jeff, for instance, is always quick to stress the value he perceives in social networking for building and maintaining relationships.

I confess, I've never seen this value, no matter how much Jeff has stressed it.

Relationships just don't happen over an Internet medium, except in the most bare-bones, utilitarian sense. Which of us, in talking about the great times we've had with friends, ever stops to recount a meaningful status update? We may share, away from Facebook, things that we saw or read there, but those are always sidebars to the main events of our lives.

I've always enjoyed the pictures my friend Ruth shares of her children, but the memories I treasure are from the visits I've had with her and her family. I recall with great clarity the Saturday afternoon we went to lunch in Port-au-Prince then caught up with one another in their living room.

Facebook lets me know when my brother has gone for a ride on his horse. Seeing him in person or hearing him on the phone, I get a fuller measure of his experience. His shoulders will slump with that so-good fatigue, and his voice will carry his excitement as he shares where he's ridden and what he's seen. You don't get that on social media. Conversation isn't just a two-way exchange of words; it's a dynamic system, where one person's enthusiasm and interest feeds the other's.

Break it up and remove that direct interaction, and you're left to interact with the cold text another person has left, often hours earlier.

In the end Facebook, like most of the rest of the Internet, involves sitting alone by the computer or with your phone, interacting with what you imagine the other person to be. It is the shell of a conversation, an echo of a relationship trying to emulate the real thing.

God knows we want the real thing. Relationships these days are so impermanent. Children move hundreds of miles from their parents when they move out on their own, and then move regularly with the demands of work. Even marriage isn't what it once was. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average marriage will last seven years.

Facebook gives us the illusion of permanency and connection. Thinking about your college roommate? Look him up. Want your parents to know what their grandchildren are up to? No problem! It's a piece of cake to share the contents of your digital camera in an album they can look through at their leisure. Feeling nostalgic for that guy in high school who used to look down his nose at you? Hey, no problem – he'll be sending you a friends request any day now.

Facebook has kept us networked with one another, but it hasn't brought us any closer together, and that's the difficulty I have with it. Too often, in fact, it tears us apart where we expect it to pull us together.

If you're my friend on Facebook, after the events of Sandy Hook, you probably saw me voice some thoughts on the subject of gun control. If you agree with me, you might even have clicked Like. But if you didn't, it's just as possible you got annoyed at what you saw as an attack on your Second Amendment rights.

Being the polite sort, you didn't say anything then, but it stuck under your craw. You've heard the gun control rhetoric before, and it's never impressed you. But when you came back to the site, my comment was still there, still obtrusive, and still annoying to you.

If we'd been in the same room, we might have had a conversation on the subject. We would have known when each other wanted to speak, and we would have paused and allowed for the back-and-forth of a proper discussion. In the process, we would have moved beyond the surface arguments to some of the deeper issues.

But since this exchange would have happened on Facebook, each of us would have said all that we wanted to, with no modulation for interruption or discussion, after the initial comment was made without having you specifically in mind. And so, though neither of us intended to, we've driven a little wedge between us.

It gets even worse when our friends get involved, because often they have no relationship to provide context at all. Disagree with someone's post, and you may be called delusional, or worse. Like the rest of the Internet, the Facebook platform just doesn't support actual dialogue and understanding as much as it does strong language and hard feelings.

As my friend Indigo once observe, “Social networking just brings people together. It doesn't guarantee what happens next.”

Facebook goes on, but it will go on without me. As much as I have loved George Takei's page, as much as I have loved the ecards I have seen, as much as I have enjoyed the clever fan pages and all the witty graphics that get passed around, and as much as I love hearing about Jeff's trip to the supermarket to buy some mustard, it isn't worth it.

If I take everything Facebook delivers, and I weight it on a balance against the other things that could be done with the time, particularly the value of the relationships that we sacrifice to use the service, Facebook cannot measure up. Most things in life are better in moderation, but Facebook? I have found that for me, at least, it is like the proverbial obese man at an all-you-can-eat buffet. There's nothing wrong with the buffet, but perhaps it would be better to go home and have a salad.

I'm setting down my tray and I'm walking away from the building, with no plan for the foreseeable future of going back.

This entry is a blog response to "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish."

Copyright © 2012 by David Learn. Used with permission.