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.

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.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

'a new kind of christianity'

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 are 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.
Copyright © 2014 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, August 08, 2014

spider-man: the other

When J. Michael Straczynski began writing for Marvel Comics in 2001, he asked one simple but fascinating question: What if it was the spider, and not the radiation that gave Spider-man his powers?

That question, which made Spider-man fresh and new in a way he hadn't been for years, bears mixed fruit in "The Other: Evolve or Die." On the one hand, the entire concept of Spider-man as a totemistic hero, one chosen to serve as an avatar of the spider, is a fascinating idea. On the other hand, this is something Straczynski already has explored at length in the pages of "Spider-man," and it takes about two-thirds of the collection before the storyline actually presents us with anything new along those lines.

Written across four concurrently published Spider-man titles, "The Other" has Spider-man come face to face with his own mortality as a mystery ailment leaves him addled and weakened, and ultimately unable to defend himself against a murderous foe.

The story suffers from too many writers, but it shines its brightest when it focuses on the relationship between Peter Parker and his wife. There's a heart-wrenching moment when she confronts him with the survivor's guilt and subconscious death wish that drive him to be hero, for one. In another scene, written by Peter David, Mary Jane Watson-Parker watches a newscast helplessly as Spider-man fights Iron Man, and of course Spider-man's death scene, his fifth and easily best-written.

Like many other stories in a long-running title, the events of "The Other" no longer count in Spider-man's continuity and in this case at least, that's unfortunate. While it's not as strong as the earlier stories from Straczynski's tenure on "The Amazing Spider-man," "The Other" remains an engaging read.