Monday, November 26, 2012

Stories Matter. But So Does Science.

Religion is inherently a little ridiculous.

I don’t mean that in a bad way, believe it or not.  It’s just that, when observed under even a cursory amount of critical thought, all of these stories become ludicrous.  It’s not any one religion, it’s all of them.  They’re all silly.  Again, I don’t mean that in a bad way, I’m GLAD that they’re silly.  Mythology is supposed to be stories that you live your life around, stories that explain how one should act and behave.  It’s a good thing.

Believe me, I’m a storyteller.  Stories MATTER, far more than most people realize.  A people’s stories can tell you things about their culture you might never imagine.  And just because a story is silly doesn’t diminish it in any way, in my opinion.  Whether it’s Buddha sitting under a tree, Paul on the road to Damascus, Heracles slaying the Hydra, Kali dancing on the supposed (but totally faking!) corpse of Shiva, Odin building the world out of the corpse of a giant, Inanna being stripped as she walks through the underworld, Noah getting buggered by his son, Batman punching the living hell out of the Joker- stories fucking matter, and in religious mythology even more so.  “Why is this story being told” is the first thing you should ask yourself when critically evaluating a story, and religion brings that question even more to the forefront.  We tell these stories to teach each other how to live.  To teach each other what matters to us, as a people. TO TEACH.

But then again, a storyteller must know their place.  And more importantly, they must realize that there are other things that are important, too.  Like actual, legitimate knowledge.  Science.  FACTS.  A good and wise storyteller never takes themselves too seriously, and values the intelligence of others.  Specifically, scientists.  The people who are figuring out shit that no other creature in three and a half billion years has worked out on this planet. 

Really let that number sink in.  Because the men and women who are figuring out how all of this, all of existence, came into place?  Fucking unsung heroes, who each and every one of us take for granted.  They’re so integral to our modern, first world lifestyle that we don’t ever think of them, and they don’t usually even ask us too.  They’ve got to figure out how fucking gravity works  (magnets?), they’ve got better things to do that have us shower them with praise.  Even though we ALWAYS should be showering them with it.

… Which is why bullshit like this pisses me off so much.

Maybe I’m just too tired- after the usual Thanksgiving weekend mess- and my resolve is down.  This is hardly different than Senator Rubio’s “I don’t know how old theEarth is” nonsense from a week earlier.  But for whatever reason, this story infuriated me this morning.  The notion that this is what is being taught in schools around this country is hardly new information to me.  For many people, ridiculous dogma trumps actual science in the arena of “who has the right to be right”.  But that doesn’t change the fact that these people are wrong.

Best estimates put the universe beginning roughly 13.7 billion years ago, but new data may end up adjusting that number quite a bit.  Regardless, 4.568 billion years ago, our own solar system formed,  with the Earth forming roughly 100,000 years after the sun.  A proto-planet, roughly the size of Mars soon (cosmologically speaking) struck the Earth, the collision resulted in the moon.  About a billion years after it was formed, chemical molecule chains formed the earliest single celled organisms.  Plants, animals, bacteria, fungi- all of descend from these earliest cells.  Evolution (as a concept) is not a matter actual scientists debate, and while yes, it is a theory, so is gravity.  When a scientist says he has a theory, that doesn’t mean it’s some shit he just pulled out of his ass.  Know your terminology.

The Bible is not a textbook.  Hell it’s not even a book, it’s a compilation of somewhat related books.  The Earth was not created in six days, nor does the sun revolve around it, regardless of what is said in the Bible.  People and non-avian dinosaurs have never interacted directly, because they were extinct for 65 million years before our monkey ancestors started having sex facing each other. 

As They Might Be Giants put it, science is real.  And creationism isn’t.  They are not competing theories, because creationism isn’t a theory, it’s a religious belief that in no way is based on actual, repeatable evidence.  Plenty of people can reconcile their religious beliefs with actual science, because they recognize that mythic storytelling is not meant to be literal, but allegorical.  If you feel that your religious faith is threatened by evolution, then perhaps you need to reexamine why you believe in whatever it is that you claim to believe in.  Stop letting your self-doubt breed other people’s ignorance.

And I’m sorry to be bitchy about this, but when 46% ofAmericans say they believe in creationism- despite all evidence- what’s a guy to do?  You can only feel sorry for offending willingly ignorant people for so long.  If you live in a first world country and you really insist that the Earth is six thousand years old, despite the fact that you could Google that shit from your friggin’ cellphone?  Too bad.  I’m not going to apologize for offending such idiocy.

What I find most ironic about this is a purely personal: This coming weekend I was planning on getting a new tattoo with a few friends.  I haven’t gotten one in a few years, and it’s a birthday party thing, and I decided weeks ago that this was a good time to get a new one.  I’m still finishing up the design, but it’s going to be an Apatosaurus in the classic dinosaur death pose, which I’m sort of framing around an infinity symbol.  When I started working on it I mostly just thought it would be a neat trick and look kind of cool; I’m already on the record as saying that Apatosaurus is thegreatest dinosaur ever.  Now, though, I see it as more of an emboldened statement.  Dinosaurs were real, science is real, and it always has been.  This is how the universe came together in all its breath-taking wonders and horrors.  Math and chemistry and an incredible amount of time shaped everything around us.  A jerk with a beard is not “God”, and if “God” is real or not depends entirely upon how you define the term.  It’s also irrelevant, because maybe “God” really just means “SCIENCE”.  I doubt the people who made these “science” books ever considered that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Making Marvel Mine: Marvel Masterworks Golden Age Captain America Volume 1 (Captain America Comics 1-4)

I decided I needed a break from my Silver Age Marvel read-through, but still wanted to keep up with old timey Marvel comics. So naturally, I decided to check out the craziness of the Golden Age!  Back then, "Marvel Comics" was an actual comic itself, but that's not what I was in the mood for- I've already read through two whole Essentials about a Human Torch getting all huffy with the Sub-Mariner- so I decided to check out Simon and Kirby's very earliest issues of Captain America Comics.

Golden Age books are different animals than their descendants, much rawer.  The first superhero stories began with 1938's Action #1, barely more than two years before Cap's premiere in March of 1941.  The art is much rougher than in the heyday of the House of Ideas.  Never the less, there's some beautiful imagery some places, and it’s fascinating seeing how early Kirby would eventually evolve over time. 

Cap's origin- the only story in this volume I had read before- is a pretty straight forward 8 pager.  It's March of 1941.  To fight a war that privately everyone paying attention in Washington knows they'll soon join, the government's top scientist, Professor Reinstein, has developed a super-soldier serum.  It is designed to turn anyone into an augmented superhuman.  Its first test subject is scrawny army-reject Steven Rogers, and the test is a complete success... that is, until one of the audience members is revealed to be a Nazi spy, who assassinates Reinstein.  There will be no army of super-soldiers.  Only the initial test subject, Rogers, who becomes Captain America, a living symbol of American awesomeness and Nazi-punching,  And believe me, there are a lot of Nazis to punch.

Everyone knows the cover of Captain America Comics ("CAC" from here out) #1- they actually used in the movie (Seriously!).  What's amazing is the story behind it.  In his introduction to this volume, Roy Thomas does a better job than I would describing it but here are the cliff notes:  CAC was a HUGE hit.  We were still months from Pearl Harbor, but anyone who was paying attention could tell that joining the war in Europe was highly likely.  Still, there were plenty of pro-Nazi Americans living around the country at this point in history, and a lot of them were pissed about the cover: Captain America, kicking all kinds of Nazi ass and punching out Uncle Adolf.  (And he'd do it again on the cover of issue 2!)

The fact was, Captain America was a comic written, drawn, and published by a group of Jews, and Nazi Sympathizers figured that out pretty fast.  Joe Simon reported that "menacing looking groups of strange men" began surrounding their offices, to the point where the police and Mayor LaGuardia's office became involved.  No one got hurt, luckily, but the story shows the effect that Cap’s punch had on people.

At this point in the book, the cast is still relatively small.  Besides Cap himself there's his pre-teen sidekick, Bucky Barnes, who is the "mascot" at Camp Lehigh.  Bucky is basically just Robin without the cape at this point, but it is what it is.  Also, while Peggy Carter doesn't exist yet, there is a pseudo-love interest in Special Agent Betty Ross, a federal investigator who Captain America runs into at least once an issue it seems, usually to rescue.  Slightly off subject, but I'd like to think that this Betty Ross-what with her military connections- would go on to become the mother of General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (aka Red Hulk), and therefore the grandmother of Hulk's number one gal Betty Ross (who is now Red She-Hulk, because COMICS).  That's totally my own invention as far as I know, but I think it'd be cool.

Anyway, there really aren't any more cast members, other than soldiers whose names aren't important, and the villains.  The only reoccurring villain so far is, of course, the Red Skull, but he's not the Red Skull we all know and loathe.  Rather, than Johann Schmidt, the Skull is one George Maxon, an American plane designer who's secretly an evil Nazi saboteur (of course).  All of this will later be retconed, but in 1941, that's where we stand.

There are a few other features in CAC as well.  Mostly they involve shirtlessness, for whatever reason.  There's "Tuk, Caveboy" which is, obviously, about a cave-boy named Tuk having adventures in prehistoric times with his older male guardian dude, Tanir, who is a "mighty Cro-Magnon man" we are often reminded.  Nothing odd about a muscular man in his late twenties hanging out with a 12 year old boy, having 'adventures' in nothing but their underpants, no siree.  Outfits aside, while it's not really to my tastes, the feature is close enough to Cap's esthetic (boy and his adult big-brother figure fight evil and are awesome together) that it makes a sort of sense to put it in this comic.

The weirder extra is "Hurricane".  Hurricane is the "master of speed"- basically a Flash knock-off- who happens to be the son of the Norse god Thor (you may have heard of him),  as well as being the "last descendent of the Greek Immortals", and is in a constant struggle with his uncle, the Roman god Pluto, who is also the literal Devil (as well as a master of having horrible plans that don't advance him in anyway, but whatever).  Sometimes his adventures involve taking out mobsters, or saving jungle natives from evil green mists, or fighting Pluto at a costume party, or shrunken heads- the feature is kind of a mess, is what I'm getting at.  And all that's before I tell you that his costume consists of bright blue underpants, matching boots, and a headband.  That's it.  I kind of love how awful it is. 

Then again, as crazy as "Hurricane" is, it's not like the rest of this book is a vast sea of logic.  In the world of Captain America, Nazi spies are literally everywhere, blowing stuff up and generally being a nuisance.  Stories can go from incredibly awesome (and horrific) to complete bat shit crazy with the turn of a page.  One story has the Red Skull destroying the city with a massive Nazi Drilling machine (the art on that page by Jack Kirby and Al Avison is incredible), only to turn into a farce when the Red Skull accidentally kidnaps two thugs who are trying to make a buck posing as Cap and Bucky.  The Skull later hangs them on camera, as there’s no such thing as a Comics Code Authority in 1941.

Cap fights zombifided yellow-peril giants who are allergic to loud noises.  Cap fights a Nazi spy whose M.O. is to sculpt wax replicas of his victim's faces, and then force them onto their heads and suffocate them.  Cap fights Ivan the Terrible (it was all a dream, but still though).  Cap and Bucky sneak into Germany by posing as- I swear to god- a German grandmother and her young, fancily dressed grandson.

He wears an actual corset OVER his Captain America costume, for reals, you guys.  This is Captain America's immediate solution on how to get into Germany.  "Hold still, Bucky, first I'm going to dress you up!" -ACTUAL DIALOGUE AS HE PUTS BUCKY IN HIS LITTLE VELVET COSTUME!!!!  AND THEN on the plane to Germany, while CAPTAIN AMERICA is sitting quietly fucking KNITTING A GODDMAN SWEATER in a DRESS AND WIG, a German dude he's NEVER SEEN BEFORE walks past him, and Cap immediately PUNCHES HIM IN THE FACE, just for being some German guy.  He later proceeds to Germany, walks around holding his "grandson's" hand, and eventually gets into a fist fight with Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goring.  Simultaneously.  It is AMAZING.

And believe it or not, that's not even close to the craziest story in this book.  No, that would be "Captain America and the Unholy Legion".  If that title sounds awesome to you, then trust me, you have no idea.  The story begins with Howard Baxter, industrial tycoon, who's surveying his munitions plant, and who may or may not be who the Fantastic Four's Baxter Building is named for.  I probably made that up, but I hope not, because just then a homeless person strangles him!  And then we see a variety of different business leaders being murdered by more homeless people!  And the police are pulling dead bodies out of the river- bodies of policemen and servicemen who have been tortured, branded with a swastika, and murdered!

YES.  This is a story about Captain America fighting a cult of Nazi homeless people who ritualistically murder rich guys and police officers and call themselves the Unholy Legion.  And as with most of these stories, it relies entirely on coincidence and insanity.   You see, the only reason Cap and Bucky get involved is that Steve gives a coin to a legless beggar, only it turns out, he was FAKING.  Instantly expecting something nefarious, he has his 12 year old sidekick infiltrate the hobo headquarters that he just knows exists, while he himself goes home to chillax. 

When we get to Hobo Central, we meet the Homeless General, who we know is evil because, you know, EYE PATCH.  (This story is not exactly sensitive about disabilities, or the plight of the homeless, you guys.)  To enter, you must speak the password, but luckily everyone is lined up in a queue so it's easy to overhear what the password is ("Down with Democracy", in case you're wondering).  Bucky gets in, and we learn that all the coins these Nazi beggars receive go in a collection box that is sent back over to the Fatherland, and that all these bums are ALL DIRTY FAKERS when it comes to their disabilities.  Also, apparently all the homeless dudes and lady dudes have had a swastika branded into their chests, because Bucky gets caught for not having one.

Bucky is about to be branded and then murdered horribly when Cap shows up.  Fighting ensues, and Bucky gets to hilariously brand these evil Nazis on the ass.  SUDDENLY a machine gun appears basically out of nowhere, and Cap and Bucky have mostly won the day.... or have they?  The leader- who appears to be the only actual German in the room- gets away in his secret underground tunnel (because, obviously!) and boats over to a hidden U-boat sub.  This sub appears to be here for the EXPRESS PURPOSE of taking the money the Nazi Hobo Cult gathers off the street, to pay for the Nazi military machine.  Guys: Nazis are not good with economics, okay?

Cap and Bucky witness the escape, swim over to the U-Boat, and proceed to punch every god damn Nazi they see in the face, but the Hobo Leader escapes AGAIN!  Bucky blows the submarine right the hell up for good measure, and Cap and Bucky swim back to shore.  A nearby Allied destroyer witnesses the explosion, and the Captain says "Confound the nerve of those Nazis!" like this is just ruining his tea party.  Hilarious.

German Homeless King Dude beats Cap back to his base-because he was using a secret modified torpedo to race to shore(because of course he was), while they were just swimming- and frees all of the captured cultists.  Cap and Bucky beat the hell out of them AGAIN, and Cap smacks the leader upside of the face with his shield.  Bucky phones the FBI to let them know the Nazi Hobos are defeated.  And in the Oval Office, FDR, who has been all kinds of worried about this secret Nazi homeless army, thanks Captain America for his heroic deeds, stating that his "deeds will live forever!".  Then Cap and Bucky go home for naps.  Really.  The end!

Holy shit, those were 15 amazing pages, I'm telling you.  Never in my life will I think of something as high concept as "Nazi Hobo Ritualistic Murder Cult".  I mean really, where do you go from there?  Oh, that's right, you BLOW UP A SUBMARINE MID-STORY, JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT!  It's insane.  And it's amazing.  So bravo, Golden Age Captain America.  I wasn't too sure of you at first, but you have won me over, I promise you.  I can't wait to read more of your kooky, balls-to-the-wall stories of madness and Nazi punching. Even if I have to sit through "Tuk, Caveboy" as part of the deal.

Oh, also, early Stan Lee prose pieces are in here too.  Awesome.