Thursday, June 28, 2012

I Kind of Want 99% of the Population to Stop Talking About Things They Don’t Understand

Man, I really want to talk about mice, you guys, but I keep getting distracted.  And the last few days the distraction has been the SCOTUS decision on the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010.  Now that the decision has been released and that the Supreme Court is backing it, lots of people have been talking about it.  And a few people have been asking me why I haven’t been.

So, despite my blog’s subtitle, I haven’t talked much about politics in public lately.  So, just so you know, I am a HUGE political junkie.  I was a poli-sci major, I follow political scorecards the way other people follow football stats.  That’s a thing, right?  Football stats?  Anyway, I’m always updating my web browser for the latest updates on the great political game.

But that’s why I haven’t talked about it much lately.  Most of the time, for me, it’s just a game.  It’s a high stakes game, but that’s all it is.  And the problem is, for a lot of people-a lot of them good people that I consider my friends- politics is religion.  They blindly believe whatever their chosen political faction tells them to believe, and they refuse to consider that their side might be wrong.  And every side is wrong, sometimes, no matter what.  We’re only human, after all.  We’re still just a bunch of fucking monkeys, no matter how well we might dress.

So when people ask me what political party I belong to, a lot of times I have to explain that, no, really, I’m totally an independent.  I’m not much of a joiner, and I’m not going to officially endorse an entire group of people just to be labeled a color and a type of quadrupedal mammal.  “But you’re such a lefty!” people say.  Well, no, I’m not, I’m actually pretty moderate.  The only reason people think that is because I don’t have a problem with gay marriage and I think abortion should absolutely be legal.  I can make well-reasoned, moral arguments to support those opinions.  But even if I was a crazed leftist, I wouldn’t just join up with the Democrats.  Political parties change their “views” constantly, whenever it’s politically convenient.  Strom Thurmond ran for president as a (sort of) Democrat and as an avowed segregationist back in 1948.  He didn’t quit the Democratic Party until 1964, when the party had shifted to being too pro-“let’s not be racist dickwads anymore” for him.  In the past decade, the Republican party has gone so far to the right that most moderate Republicans have realized they can’t win their own party's primaries.

Now, I don’t want to be one of those people who’s all “Our country’s more divided than ever!”.  It’s not.  American politics has always been brazenly un-civil, and I’m pretty sure we’ve never been as “divided” as we were in the first half of the 1860’s.  It’s just that my own personal beliefs don’t fit on a bumper sticker.  Politics is about compromise, at least in theory, and sometimes I have to compromise and endorse candidates only because they’re better than the alternative. I’m never going to agree with anyone all the time, and that’s fine with me.  And while I enjoy the game, I try to never forget that that’s all it is.

So, the Supreme Court has backed the Affordable Care Act.  And that is its name, not “Obamacare”, because calling the act “Obamacare” is just as stupid as calling the 2006 Massachusetts Health Care Insurance Reform Law “Romneycare”.  How does that decision make me feel?  Well, uh, okay I guess?  I didn’t want them to repel it, but the world would have kept turning if they had repelled all or part of it.  Just because I didn’t want them to repel it doesn’t mean I support every single line of it, but generally it’s easier to make reforms to laws than to throw them out completely.

There’s a reason I’m not too worked up about it:  I didn’t read it.  Nor did I read the SCOTUS’ 193 page opinion of the law.  Believe it or not, I actually do have a day job, which is why I leave reading long-ass legal views to people who are professionally trained to do that sort of thing.  I don’t want to be a politician, I’m much happier just writing about them.  So when it comes to fact checking them, I generally rely on professional fact checkers.  And most of them agree that while the Affordable Care Act has its problems, it’s doing more good than bad.  It is not a government takeover of our healthcare system.  It is not the largest tax in American History.  There are no death panels.  Please, everyone:  Stop talking out of your asses.

And I realize that both sides are capable of saying absolutely bat shit crazy stupidity.  In the Obama campaign’s “Life of Julia” whatchamacallit, the campaign claims:
Under President Obama: Julia enrolls in Medicare, helping her to afford preventive care and the prescription drugs she needs.
Under Mitt Romney: Medicare could end as we know it, leaving Julia with nothing but a voucher to buy insurance, which means $6,350 extra per year for a similar plan.
That’s (mostly) bullshit too.  But most people don’t bother to do any research at all.  They just spout off whatever their preferred party tells them too.  They have faith.  But I (and the professional fact checkers) need more than that.  So, I’m glad it wasn’t repealed, because repealing it (without a new plan on how to reform national healthcare in place already) would probably just have made things even worse.  But I’ve got more important shit to do then freak out that “my side” scored a victory.  They won’t always be “my side”, because I don’t have unending faith in them.

It’s not their fault.  After all, we’re all only human.  And I know I won’t get my way, people will still keep freaking out about things they don’t understand.  I can't expect everyone to agree with me that well reasoned and researched discussion is the best way to improve the world.  But I can dream, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

So, About How My Grandmother's Dead And Stuff...

"How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say?"
                                                                                               -James T. Kirk, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

So, 6 days ago my grandmother, Ann Tussing, died.  It's been a little... odd, I suppose, for lack of better term.  I've never had a grandparent die on me before, though I have lost an uncle, two great-grandmothers, and more friends than I can count over the years.  Death doesn't really bug me, it's been a part of life I've been keenly aware of since a very young age.  And over the last week, whenever anyone has asked me how I'm doing with all this, I really feel... well, maybe a little guilty?  But I've always been honest with my answer.  I'm relieved.  Relieved, and glad that her (pointless, sucky) struggle with severe dementia is over.  Relieved that all the mistakes that led her- and by selfish extension, me- to this point can no longer be compounded.  I miss my grandmother, absolutely.  But if I'm being honest, I've been missing her for nearly a decade.  That wasn't my grandmother, it was just what was left behind when her mind started dying  years ago.

All that being said, I admit I was pretty pissed off when I was told that my grandfather didn't want any sort of funeral to be had for her.  "She didn't want one" he said, even though I've seen no evidence that this is correct (especially given that she's been essentially incapable of any sort of decision making for years).  And even if it was, funerals aren't really for the deceased, they're for everyone who knew and cared about them.  I'm pissed off and upset with him- I know I'm not the only one- but what can I do?  She was his wife, he gets the final say.  He doesn't want a public funeral?  Fine.  His choice.

But then again, this is MY blog.  My space to talk about whatever I want, and to be as self indulgent in public as I could possibly want.  And as this entire website is a testament to my self indulgence, today I want to talk just a little bit about my grandmother.  My blog.  My choice.

So, my grandmother in one word: .... tenacious.  She was a stubborn old broad.  I don't mean that in a bad way, either.  It was just a fact of life, going against her was simply ill-advised.  My dad had no problem yelling at his father-in-law, but he went out of his way to please his mother-in-law.   I have to wonder how much of my earliest (and least remember-able) years were seriously impacted by her.  Over the last few years, I've begun realizing how much like my mother I am, but I think my stubborn idealism might actually be my grandmother's fault.  She wasn't prim and proper, exactly, but she was definitely very... I don't know.  She got things done, and she got them done right.  Before she got sick, her kitchen was always impeccable.  But again, not because she was obsessive or neurotic.  She did it because that was the way it was to be done, I guess is how I'd describe it.

And believe me, as a kid, I was a total "Grandma's boy".  If we had dinner with them, I was always sitting right next to her.  A few days ago, my Aunt Patti (who's not really my aunt, but is really my godmother) described it to me: "She could always see in you what your mom and dad wouldn't, or sometimes couldn't see.  All of the questions and the prodding, she'd find a way to focus that, always."

I don't know if that's true or bullshit nostalgia (love you, Aunt Patti!), but one thing I'm certain of, I must have been an insufferable child.  I've met a few kids who I realized that was me! Oh god! because I was definitely a kid who questioned everything.  It wasn't until probably Jr. High that I realized no one else wanted answers for everything; that explaining everything wasn't needed for, like, 95% of the world.  Not everyone grows up to be analyst, which, as a kid who instinctively analyzed everything, took some time to kick in.  So if Aunt Patti is right, even more props have to go to my grandmother.  Because as an adult, trust me, I find kids like me infuriating.  "God damn it kid, how many times do I have to explain this to you?!  Jesus did not look like Ted Nugent, okay?"*

My grandmother wasn't perfect, by any means.  I mean, she suffered from the same deplorable lack of taste that affects most Americans in the South and Midwest.  She collected dolls, and some of them were nice, but a whole hell of a lot of them were Precious Moments dolls, which.... ugh.  Maybe it's a generational thing, I don't know.  Also, her lack of understanding about the fundamental importance of Spider-Man in our culture is something I'll never understand, but hey, I can lay the same complaint out on my parents. :)

The fact is, I loved my grandmother.  And she knew that, even after the dementia started to kick in back when I was in high school.  Throughout this whole ten year ordeal, where things just kept going from bad to worse, there were some dark, incredibly fucked up times.  I'm not going to go into most of them here, because, again, frankly, that wasn't my grandmother, at least, not in a way that counts to me.  But I do have one recent misadventure/horrible event I want to share.

Last year I went with my grandparents to a doctor's appointment for her.  That's putting it gently, I basically showed up unannounced, just so that the rest of the family could have an honest account of things, but my grandfather seemed okay with it.  Weeks before, my grandmother had broken several bones after a fall, and the visit was a checkup to see how she was healing.  Afterwards, my grandfather needed to head to the bathroom, so I waited with Gramma outside the doctor’s office for 15 minutes.

As we waited, her confused and in a wheelchair, me vaguely annoyed and how long he was taking and reading old Sgt. Fury comics, she started crying.  She couldn't remember why she was at the doctor, or why she was in a couple casts, or much of anything else, but she knew SOMETHING WAS WRONG.  "Justin," she asked through her tears, "what is wrong with me?" She could barely get the words out.  She knew.  She knew that she wasn't right, that something was wrong with her, but she couldn't figure out what it was.  That's what the disease had robbed her of.  Reason.  Memory.  Stolen from her, just because.

I could have told her that.  I could have told her that her brain was dying, for no real reason other than life sucks a lot some times, and she'd gotten shafted.  I could have told her that human beings are just not built to last, and unfortunately, no one was going to be able to make her better.  And the truth is, that within 5 minutes, she wouldn't have remembered what I said; maybe she'd be humming along, happy as a clam, on her way back home.

But I didn't tell her any of that.  I lied.  I don't even know why I did it, it's not like lying to her accomplished anything more than telling the truth would have.  But I said to her, "I don't know, Gramma.  But I really hope the doctor can help make you better."  The joint doctor couldn't do a damn thing for her memory, but I lied anyway.  Maybe she took comfort from what I said.  And maybe she didn't.  And ten minutes later it didn't matter, because she couldn't remember she'd even been  to the doctor.

There's nothing happy about the end of her life's story, except that it has ended.  My grandmother (pre-dementia) would have been horrified to see what her house ended up looking like.  Barely any of her was left, at the end.  So when I say that I'm relieved that she's gone, let me add that if anything was left of her in the end, I think she'd be relieved too.

Whenever anyone dies, other people always tell you that "Well, at least they're in a better place."  As a general rule, this infuriates me.  My own religious views are complicated to say the least, but for pretty much my entire life, I've been on the record as saying that I hope there isn't some sort of bullshit afterlife.  I think it cheapens the importance of life; the fact that you only get a brief moment and then you're gone- that's what makes life so precious.  I know my grandmother would disagree with me (devout Christian, and if we're being honest, I ask too many questions to be "devout" anything), but there it is:  I hope that when I die, they put me in the ground and that's it.  Game over.

But here's the thing,  whenever anybody says "She's in a better place now" about my grandmother, I'm okay with it.  Because, you know what?  She is.  Afterlife or no afterlife, at least she's not trapped anymore.  She's not stuck in a body that's losing everything that she was, piece by piece, and for that?  I rejoice.  It's not nice.  It's not happy.  But at least her suffering is over now.

So why am I writing all of this?  Because I may be okay with her death, but I'm not okay with ignoring it.  Because I do miss and love my grandmother, even if she is dead.  Because sharing memories is what's important, in my opinion.  I loved my grandmother, and I always wanted what was best for her.  And the sad truth was, this was what was best.  It fucking sucks, and I'm not ashamed to say that I got a little teary eyed writing this a couple times.  But I wanted to be honest about my feelings, so there you have it.  Later on in Star Trek 2, Dr. McCoy says of (a currently dead) Mr. Spock: "He's not really dead, as long as we remember him."  So, if the internet really is forever, then even after I'm dead (Ten bucks says I die wrestling a lion!), she'll never really be gone.  That's probably bullshit optimism on my part, but hey, you never know.

Anyway.  I just wanted to talk about my Gramma for a little bit, now that she's gone.  I promise, next post will be about Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or mouse utopias, or space travel, or some other cool shit in the next few days.  Maybe I'll even find time to talk about comic books at some point, because clearly I don't do that enough.  But sometimes you need to get serious for a moment, you know?  Anyway, thanks for reading, and I'll try to be a little less depressing next time.


*- No disrespect to Ted Nugent intended.  I don't think the two of us have much in common politically, but honestly, I have to respect a rock and roll icon who still murders his own dinner, you know?  That's pretty hardcore.  Also, any friend of Anthony Bourdain is a friend of mine.  I'm just sayin', Jesus grew up in the Middle East, you know?  He probably was a couple shades darker than you, that's all I mean.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What If Wednesday #10: What if Jane Foster had Found the Hammer of Thor?

On Wednesdays, The Amazing Justin Palm! gets drunk as shit and reviews an issue of Marvel Comics’ “What If?” so that you, the reader, can enjoy his drunken ramblings about a comic book whose sole purpose is to talk about shit that never happened, so it doesn’t matter at all. Dear Internet: You’re welcome.

Hey everyone!  Long time no “What If Wednesday”!  There's a number of reason for that, not the least of which being that, by shear concept alone, this week's What If is pretty fucking weird (And will take a little explaining, too).  But hey, I realized that today is the season premiere of Futurama- which is awesome- and that I had jack all else to do waiting for it, so fuck it.  Might as well get drunk and rub one of these out for the audience at large.  As always, it's all about you, the viewers.  I toil tirelessly, all for your entertainment value.

Okay, so let’s get on with it.  First thing you need to know, is that back in the day, Thor's secret origin went a little differently than in the movie.  All of this will be relevant to the plot, I assure you.  Thor was originally a mortal doctor with a limp, named Donald Blake.  Dr. Don was vacationing in Norway- as American doctors commonly do, I assume- when one day he came across an alien invasion force, the Stonemen from Saturn!  Not gonna lie, I think these guys are rad as hell.

 Pretty great.

Anyway, as they land, the aliens spot Blake spotting them, so they decide to chase him into the mountains of Norway to kill him.  Rushing into a cave, Blake spots an ancient walking stick, which is convenient, but not going to save his life.  Then he strikes the stick against a wall in anger, and the stick magically turns him into the Norse god of thunder, Thor.  That, my friends, IS convenient, and he proceeds to beat the asses of all the Stonemen.  They flee to their ship and fly off into space, because since Blake/Thor is the only human they've ever seen (shitty job of recon, I guess), they assume every human has his awesome abilities.  Because this is an early 60's Marvel comic, where all the aliens are stupid as hell.  All of this would later be streamlined/retconned/modified to look a lot closer to what the movie gave you, but not by 1978, I guess.

Also, you remember Natalie Portman's character, Jane Foster?  Well, uh, she wasn't an astrophysicist in the comics.  She was Dr. Blake's nurse at his private practice.  That, and as previously discussed, they had a whole Clark Kent/Lois Lane/Superman love triangle thing, and frankly it was boring as hell.  Anyway, let's hope that's enough backstory.  Moving on to the actual What If?!
Jesus, fucking Uatu.  If I ever met the Watcher, I would punch him in the throat.  This comic may be 33 pages long, but he spends 3 and a half of them retelling all of what I just explained to me, the intended audience, who most likely already is familiar with this crap.  And those first 3 pages?  All of them are splash pages.  Such a waste of space. 
Anyway!  Now we learn why this universe we're about to read about is different.  See, this time around, when Dr. Blake took his annual pilgrimage to Norway, he brought Jane with him!  Presumably they were already bone buddies by this point in this universe?  Nope!  He's all "I wish I could tell her I love her!  But alas, she's too hot to love me, for rich, handsome, and totally as successful as I am, lo, my slight and totally manageable hip dysplasia makes me a lowly cripple in the eyes of all gorgeous brunettes!"  Donald Blake feeling sorry for himself about walking with a cane is a major theme of Thor for, like, the first 20 years of the book.  Seriously.  Frankly, I don't get it, but hey, there was no ADA yet, so maybe life really was that hard for you if you needed a cane at the age of 32 back then? 

Anyway, Jane totally does dig this handsome, successful, nearly perfect blonde cripple, but they both suck at talking about their feelings, so they stand around not saying anything until the Stonemen show up with their ill-fated invasion plans.  So, this time around, the Stonemen from Saturn spot not one, but two Earthlings they decide to smash, and the two rush off.  Because he's a clumsy oaf, Blake drops his cane into a ravine, and when Jane goes to grab it, a (very) small rock slide ensues.  Blake hides behind some rocks as Jane starts looking around a nearby cave where, you guessed it, the walking-stick-that-when-you-smack-it-turns-it-into-the-Hammer-of-Thor is hanging out.  Naturally, in her anger of finding a mostly useless stick, she smacks the wall with it, which... uh... well, another splash page later, we see girl Thor in all her busty glory.

Now, remember in the movie, the whole part where Odin's all "Whosoever holds this hammer, if they be worthy..." thing?  Well, that's been a part of Thor Lore since the beginning, and this comic even acknowledges it.  So, I guess, Jane Foster has always been worthy of the power of Thor?  I guess?  Anyway, "Thor" is too manly a name for Jane, but thankfully she remembers a Norwegian girl she met at Nursing school named "Thordis" (no, really), so she decides to call herself Thordis for the rest of the book.

But just then, the Stonemen have figured out Blake's clever "hide behind a rock" scheme, and are all set to kill him, but thankfully Thordis is here to save him.  The Stonemen are beaten, same as before, and Blake reveals to Thordis that he does love Jane; because of course the Superman/Clark/Lois thing has now been reversed. 

Meanwhile, in Asgard, Loki escapes his most current prison, and is off to dick around Thor, because that's Loki's whole deal.  A while later, we're in New York, and we're reliving a very old issue of Journey into Mystery, where Loki transformed people into negatives (Like, a photo negative?  I know, it doesn't make sense to me either).  As Dr. Blake panics about all this, Jane rushes off, and hilariously reveals to the audience that she has sculpted a hairbrush out of the Norwegian magical walking stick.  Ladies, you all hand carve your own hairbrushes, right?  She turns herself into Thordis, and rushes to save the day.  When Loki realizes that Thor, his brother via adoption, is now a hot chick, he is immediately aroused.  Still, being a dick is a full time job, and Loki is nothing if not a professional.
Loki uses the reflection of the sun's rays off of Thordis's own hammer to hypnotize her.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, guys, I'm not making this up, you know?  Once hypnotized, he tries to get her to give him the hammer, but she resists, smacks him around, and throws him off the top of the Empire State Building to Asgard to get him out of her hair. The Warriors Three catch him, but he demands an audience with Anthony Hopki- uh, I mean, Odin.  Odin's all "How the fuck did you escape your imprisonment this time?" and Loki goes "Dude, forget that, did you know that Thor's back and stuff?", and Odin goes "Shit, son, I sense that he is.  Let's have a party to honor him."  The Norse gods love to party, you guys.  It's no wonder my ancestors worshipped them.  Anyway, back on Earth, Jane Foster feels herself being called to Asgard, so she changes into Thordis and heads on over.

Guys, did you see what Loki just did there?  Everyone knows that Thor's back, but no one knows that now the role of Thor is being played by Charlize Theron, or that girl from Species!  Who wants to bet that shenanigans are about to go down?  THIS GUY.

So, Thordis goes to Asgard, and at first all the lesser gods are all "who's this hot chick cosplaying as a rule-63 Thor?"  But then Odin sees her and FREAKS RIGHT THE HELL OUT.  After taking a chill pill, Odin expounds that back in the day, he sent Thor to Earth in the guise of Don Blake to teach him humility, but, uh, he's uncomfortable with a woman gaining his son's power, regardless of, you know, worthiness?

Now hold the phone, I've read a ton of early Thor, and most of it was about Odin being pissed off that Jane wasn't worthy of Thor's godly genitals, but here it turns out, she's super worthy after all?  Oh, irony.  Fandral the Dashing gets all touchy feely on her, so she proceeds to whoop ass, and thus, Odin sends her back to Earth, if only to get her out of his beard hair.  After banishing Thordis for daring to have ovaries, Odin feels sad, and so does the Lady Sif, who was supposed to marry Thor, eventually.  Loki plots, because, again, that's what he does best.

Thordis goes off to have all of Thor's early adventures, and even helps form the Avengers, just so that professional douche-bag Giant-Man can gawk at her awesome rack while simultaneously ignoring his girlfriend.  (It's on page 21, panel 3, for those that think I'm being too harsh on that asshole.)  In Asgard, Odin needs to take his celestial nap, but he fears doing this while Thor is away.  Admitting that all of this is his fault?  Not likely.  But as Loki figures out how to take advantage of this, Sif rides off to Midgard, to see if she can make Donald Blake remember who he is.
As Blake is sulking on a beach about being so lame (ha-ha!  A pun!), Sif appears as a girl drowning.  Blake rescues her, and to repay him, she tells him she loves him, turns into her goddess self, and heals his (not all that severe) limp.  This comic is not very subtle with its sexual politics, people.  Don is pretty stoked to be dating a literal goddess and to no longer being slightly limp, but then Loki shows up to fuck it all up.  Sif and Loki fight, and even Don gets in on the action to save his new (divine) gal-pal, but just as Loki is about to kill Don (who, remember, is secretly Thor) for good, Thordis shows up, and Loki flees to Asgard.  Blake is fine, but as Thordis checks on Sif we learn she's really hurt.  In a display of the most Clark Kent moment I've ever seen outside of a damn Superman comic, Blake performs drastic surgery on the goddess Sif, with Thordis as his nurse, and NO ONE realizes that she's actually Jane Foster in disguise. 

I'm gonna try not too hard to think about that much longer, because that entire sentence is insane.  Anyway, Sif gets better, and loves Don even more, which infuriates Loki.  Unfortunately, with only 4 pages left to go with this insane story, we don't have time to dwell on any of this, because it's time for fucking Ragnarok to begin!!!!  SERIOUSLY.  Oh, and Don wants to come to, because why not?  If the entire universe is days from destruction, he might as well watch from the best seats in the house. 

So, Loki has taken over as king as Odin sleeps.  And there's this alien asshole named Mangog, who's killing everyone, although I don't remember him in any versions of the Ragnarok myth that I've ever read before (I guess he'll be in Essential Thor volume 2?).  Anyway, Loki's not doing anything to stop him, and I guess he kills a bunch of dudes or something, and then Sif, Thordis, and Blake fight Mangog for a while until Odin wakes up and magics him to death. Anyway, Loki's stupid plan, whatever it was, is thwarted.  Odin takes the hammer away from Thordis, revealing it to belong to Blake, and revealing Thordis to be Jane Foster (no duh!), and thus, Blake is Thor again.  But then Odin makes Jane a totally new goddess, with no name of her own.  Goddess Jane is feeling pretty sweet about that, until she realizes that Thor and Sif are still, like, totally into each other.  So now, even though she's a freakin' goddess, she still needs a man to define her, and doesn't have one.  But wait!  What's this?  Thor's creepy dad, Odin, totally wants to bone her?  She is all about that, so she promptly marries her... her ex-boyfriend’s dad, and, uh, that's the end of the story.


Nope.  No, I quit.  This one got even weirder than I could have imagined.  This one just got fucking creepy, and that's nearly all I have to say about it.  I actually dig the idea that Odin was so wrong about Jane Foster for all those years, but then we get this total left turn with the ending, with the creepy gross "hey baby, I'm older and wiser than him" shit, and .... nope.  No, I quit.  Fuck it.

Next time, on What If Wednesdays!  What If the Original Marvel Bullpen had Become the Fantastic Four!  Yep!  Stan Lee is Mr. Fantastic!  Jack Kirby is the Thing!  Also, King Kirby cameos as the writer, artist, and editor, and if you love Kirby solo projects as much as I do, you know insanity is coming!  It'll be weird as hell, but hey, this is What If?, what do you expect?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Making Marvel Mine: Essential Doctor Strange Volume 1 (Strange Tales 110,111, and 114-168)

Alright, I’ve been putting this off for well over 5 months.  So let’s finally just sit down and talk about this.  I tried just talking about the behind the scenes stuff to cleanse my palette so that I could focus on the comics themselves.  Seeing how that was over a month ago, and still, no dice, I guess it didn’t quite work.  So, today, I guess I’m just going to come clean.  If I’m to be damned, I want to be damned for who I really am, and so time to slay a comic book sacred cow:  I really didn’t care much for the original Lee-Ditko Doctor Strange.

I wanted to love this book, I really did.  The Lee-Ditko team was so truly exceptional on Spider-Man, that I had pretty high expectations going into this book.  So maybe that was the problem?  But the truth is, after about halfway through, when Ditko leaves Dr. Strange (and Marvel), and a whole new creative team(s) come on board, I honestly started enjoying the book much more.

There are a number of factors here, and there’s no one person to blame.  But let’s start with Stan Lee.  Lee has always been a corporate man, happy to work on whatever there was to work on, in the name of the business.  And he can write anything, and over the last 70 years, the man pretty much HAS.  But where he really shines, not surprisingly, are on projects he really, truly cares about.  That’s why his work on Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Sgt. Fury stand out so much from things like *cough!* Ant-Man.  I’m not saying that he didn’t care about Dr. Strange at all, but clearly he wasn’t as invested as he was in other projects.

Then there’s the business of Steve Ditko.  Make no mistake, Ditko’s art is dazzling.  It’s a fascinating thing to look at as art.  The problem is, in my mind, that it doesn’t work as well when it comes to telling an actual story.  Part of the problem, of course, is that there’s little thinking going into the story logic.  Things just happen, because magic!  And the whole thing often falls into the familiar fantasy pitfall of “Oh no, my magic isn’t as strong as his!  But suddenly, just in the nick of time, suddenly my magic IS stronger than his!  Hurray!”  Now, I realize variations of that happen a lot in comics, but it really feels like it happens in nearly every issue.  And the blame for that lies on the plot, and for the most part, the plot is all Ditko.

And then there’s the larger agenda, what is the work actually trying to say?  Frankly, that’s muddled, at best.  Certain issues are easy enough to work out- Issue 143 is especially interesting, as it opens with Strange literally bound and gagged, and over the course of the issue uses his powers to force his antagonist throughout the issue to release him from his bonds, freeing him to finish his work.  It’s Stan Lee’s last script on the book, and the 4th to last issue for Ditko, who was wrapping up his Eternity Saga, and the story seems to be his criticism on Marvel (and Lee in particular) for trapping him and his artistic genius.  I get that.  But if the Eternity Saga is his swan song, then what is it trying to say as a whole?  I’m not really sure.  And I went looking, and as far as I can tell, no one else is either.

Every (good) review I’ve read about this book celebrates the artistic genius of Ditko’s art, but no one seems to have tried to analyze its story.  And that seems like a disservice to me, both to Ditko himself, and to the others who have followed him.  What he was trying to say mattered to him, I’m just not sure what it was.  And I’m sorry, but I think like a writer and an analyst, much more so than as an artist. I’d love to see someone who understands the work better than me analyze it and better explain to me what Ditko was trying to say, but for now, just being interesting to look at isn’t enough of a story for me.

There’s no question that Ditko single-handedly created the visual language of magic in the Marvel Universe.  I don’t in any way wish to downplay that.  But while world building is all well and good, it rings hollow to me, all style with little substance to the stories.  And unfortunately, the work that follows often gets blasted, simply for not being Ditko.  And that’s totally unfair, in my opinion, because Ditko told his story, he said what he came to say (even if it was confusing), and to simply dismiss the rest of the Essential is callous.  No, the people who followed him up weren’t really trying to do anything deep and philosophical, they were just trying to do a superhero book.  With a very odd sort of superhero.

Artistically, there’s some real gems to follow up Ditko.  Bill Everett was one of the true masters of the Golden Age of Comics, and to see his work channeling Ditko’s own weirdness is quite fascinating.  And without question I’m glad he designed Umar (more on her in a moment), not Ditko- I’ve never found Ditko’s women to appear overly feminine.  Marie Severin follows, and while her style departs even more so from Ditko’s, there’s a fascinating strangeness to it (sorry about the pun).  Issue 158’s second splash page, with the Living Tribunal explaining how he will destroy the earth, may be my favorite image from the entire book.  Dan Adkins isn’t as much fun to look at as Severin, but he still pulls wonderfully weird and alien imagery.  Adkins is also very adept at maximizing what he can do with a splash page, and using it to demonstrate scope and epic proportions.  And George Tuska’s one fill-in issue is okay, I guess.

My point is, if this is supposed to be an artist showcase book, which seems to be the general consensus and would work to explain away my issues with Ditko’s plotting, then even more so, simply writing off what came after Ditko seems unfair to me.  There’s excellent art all around in this book.

Anyway, let’s talk briefly about the main characters.  Dr. Strange was a surgeon, but also a total asshole.  Or at least that’s how he’s presented.  He won’t heal people who can’t afford his services, which, actually doesn’t seem all that unreasonable to me, med school loans are expensive.  But then he’s in a car accident, and his hands are injured beyond repair, so his career goes tits up.  He searches the world in search of any form of healer, because he’s desperate and stuff, and eventually stumbles upon the Ancient One, an old wizard in a cave in the Far East (because it’s 1963, okay?).  The Ancient One won’t cure him, but will teach him magic, so there’s that.  The Ancient One had another student, Baron Mordo, who is EVIL.  Why the Ancient One had a good student and an evil one is never really explained, but suffice it to say, Strange and Mordo grow up to be arch-enemies.

Over the course of the series we encounter other mystical enemies.  There’s Nightmare, who’s basically Dream of the Endless but evil.  Mordo occasionally works for the Dread Dormammu, fearsome leader of the Dark Dimension, whose head is constantly on fire.  There’s also the Mindless Ones, who are like Cyclops from the X-Men, but completely mindless; Umar, Dormammu’s far more competent sister and lady wizard; and some other dudes with weird names.  There’s Eternity, the physical manifestation of, well, eternity, and try not to think about that too much and just except that he’s awesome.  The Living Tribunal is basically a three headed cosmic judge god.  And there’s Clea, who lives in the Dark Dimension, but works against Dormammu, because she’s in love with Doctor Strange.  Oh, and Strange has a manservant, named Wong.  He’s more awesome now than he used to be in these comics.

And that’s basically it.  The cast doesn’t change much, Strange and Mordo really have a Superman/Lex Luthor dynamic going for them, so there’s not much room for other villains.  But the art is often very, very pretty.  Doctor Strange is alright and all, if that’s what you’re into.  It just turns out, I’m not that into it.  Your mileage may vary, I suppose, but no matter what, my one suggestion when reading it is this: please don’t let the “Cult of Ditko” ruin the back half of this collection for you.  There’s plenty of fascinating, artsy comics in it after he leaves.  Don’t blame them for simply not being what came before, okay?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Before the Thirteenth Amendment, Slavery Was Just 3 Fifths of a Topic to Talk About

So, in case you haven’t figured this out already, pretty much everything you learned in your high school history class was wrong.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was all lies (only some of it was), but let’s just say that history text books are usually agenda-oriented.  I could spend days talking about that, and frankly, you would get bored.  Instead, let’s talk briefly about slavery.


Specifically, the idiotic lies that are taught about “free states” and “slave states”.  Guys.  There was no such thing as a free state before the Civil War (and you could argue, not even right after that).  Slavery was an economic and social reality of American life (well, “European American”, anyway) from the very beginning.  Abolitionists were mostly hated for the first half of the Nineteenth Century.  Our Eurocentric history books may not like to talk about these issues, but it doesn’t change them.  And I can prove it by doing pretty much the barest amount of research possible.

Let’s take an arbitrary “free” state.  Arbitrarily, I’ll pick Illinois, the state I live in.  Back when it was still French territory, French settlers (or French invaders, if you were the locals at the time) brought African and American Indian slaves with them into the territory.  After the French and Indian War, the territory switched over to British control.  I’m sure you all remember how that worked out.  After the American Revolution,   Illinois was part of the Northwest Territory, and under the Northwest Ordinance.  And since this is the future and we have the internet, let’s pull up Article VI of said Ordinance:

“There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.”

Damn!  That sounds downright progressive for 1787!  So, according to the law of the land at the time, no slavery.  Except, you know, if a runaway slave came into the place, the territory was obligated to return him.  But still, okay, not so bad.  A few future laws would muck things up a bit, but today, let’s keep it simple.  Under the rules of the Northwest Ordinance, Illinois became a state in 1818.  Article VI of Illinois’ first Constitution is down lower, because I know not everyone wants to read a bunch of legal gibberish, but basically it says in Illinois, we don’t do slavery.  Unless, you know, you were already a slave when we made this state.  Or you live in this place where we want slaves to mine for salt for us.  Or if we just make up some stupid bullshit to justify keeping you.  But!  If you were born into slavery after this constitution is signed, you get your freedom!  You know.  When you reach adulthood.  So, rest assured, Illinois is a free state!

Guys.  That is some bullshit, right there.  And like I said, if you don’t believe me, I reprinted the whole thing at the bottom.  This wasn’t some obscure law or code or anything, that’s the friggin’ constitution!  The literal law of the land!  Luckily, such stupid bullshit couldn’t last forever, even the law signers at the time must have realized that by the 1840s, they’d have to accept that a bunch of free children of slaves were now part of their communities.  Which is one of the many, many reasons why, in 1848, they made up a whole new constitution to replace the old one (Illinois has had 4 constitutions, to date).

Article XIII, Section 16 of the 1848 Constitution states flatly: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  So, no slavery any more, except as a jail sentence.  So, once again, progress!  Well, yeah.  But then you read further, and there’s Article XIV.  Which… Ugh.  Just read it for yourself.

“The general assembly shall, at its first session under the amended constitution, pass such laws as will effectually prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state; and to effectually prevent the owners of slaves from bringing them into this state for the purpose of setting them free.”

So…. The first thing you want to do is make a law keeping black people from moving here?  And to prohibit slave owners from moving here if they plan to free their slaves?  Jesus titty fucking Christ, that’s the legal equivalent of putting a sign out in the yard that says “No darkies”!  That’s just flat out reprehensible!  And remember, all of these things are evidenced by an easily available public document.  Finding these records online took me exactly three minutes.  I’m literally not even trying to do real research, and still I can prove my point!

The reason I bring all of this up, is because it’s important to understand this shit.  It’s not happy, it’s not nice, but it’s the truth.  As America becomes more and more integrated- both racially and internationally- it’s important to understand how we got to this point.  I really do believe that the world is progressively getting better, but issues come up.  You can’t properly deal with situations without proper information leading into it. 

American history textbooks want to provide a rosie picture of America, with the ideology of “Everything about America is great!”  It doesn’t want to admit that anything we’ve ever done was wrong.  Well, the truth is that we’ve done some pretty fucked up things in our past.  Odds are better than even that we’ll do some pretty fucked up things in our future.  And if kids grow up believing everything America has ever done was good and right, what happens when we do something horrifying?

Article VI of Illinois’ 1818 Constitution:
1. Neither slavery or involuntary servitude shall hereafter be introduced into this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted; nor shall any male person, arrived at the age of 21 years, nor female person arrived at the age of 18 years, be held to serve any person as a servant, under any indenture hereafter made, unless such person shall enter into such indenture while in a state of perfect freedom, and on condition of a bona -fide consideration received or to be received for their service. Nor shall any indenture of any negro or mulatto, hereafter made and executed out of this state, or if made in this state, where the term of service exceeds one year, be of the least validity, except those given in cases of apprenticeship.
2. No person bound to labor in any other state, shall be hired to labor in this state, except within the tract reserved for the salt works near Shawneetown; nor even at that place for a longer period than one year at any one time; nor shall it be allowed there after the year 1825: any violation of this article shall effect the emancipation of such person from his obligation to service.
3. Each and every person who has been bound to service by contract or indenture in virtue of the law of Illinois territory heretofore existing, and in conformity to the provisions of the same, without fraud or collusion, shall be held to a specific performance of their contracts or indentures; and such negroes and mulattoes as have been registered in conformity with the aforesaid laws, shall serve out the time appointed by said laws: Provided however, that the children hereafter born of such person , negroes or mulattoes, shall become free, the males at the age of 21 years, the females at the age of 18 years. Each and every child born of indentured parents, shall be entered with the clerk of the county in which they reside, by their owners, within six months after the birth of said child.