Category Archives: Comics

Man of Steal

The S stands for Hope. Shope. S'hope.

The S stands for Hope. Shope. S’hope.

Man of Steel, the movie that dares not speak its name, uttering the S word only once[1], opens in a CGI sci-fi universe reminiscent of Avatar.  No giant Smurfs, but plenty of bizarre creatures and vaguely cloud-forest images.  Russell Crowe shows up, reprising his weird fake English accent[2] from Les Mis but now playing a Jedi, including requisite Prequel Mullet, and before long the movie looks like Star Wars by way of Alien, a kind of PG-13 HR Giger, biomechanical but desexualized, down to the Kryptonian asexual reproduction, even as everything on Krypton also looks like a phallic symbol.  (They’re obviously sublimating their sexual frustration.)

Cute little Kryptonians!

Cute little Kryptonians!

Then Michael Shannon shows up, and you know he’s a bad guy because of the shape of Michael Shannon’s head.[3]  Krypton blows up on cue, Kal El is launched in another phallus, and before long, Clark Kent is a grownup on Earth—33 years old, a portentous age that the movie does not fail to point out to us.  Then we’re in X-Men territory, as the heavily muscled and even more heavily chest-haired[4] Henry Cavill drifts, just as heavily muscled and  equally hirsute Hugh Jackman did as Wolverine over a decade ago, trying to understand his place in the world, the charm on his necklace again his only clue.  Cue “Seasons,” the depressing Chris Cornell acoustic grunge song from the movie Singles, as the Artist Formerly Known as Superman swipes a conveniently flattering flannel shirt from a clothesline and hitchhikes to the next identity a la David (not Bruce) Banner in the TV show The Incredible Hulk.  If only the movie played that music instead:

The movie is cut with flashbacks to young Clark’s childhood, where, rather than having super abilities, he’s treated, and behaves, more like a child with disabilities. It’s an interesting metaphor that the movie doesn’t do much with—Smallville, the TV show, did it much better.  Ma and Pa Kent show up, although Kevin Costner’s Jonathan isn’t what I associate with the role. Rather than teaching Clark to celebrate who he is and always do what’s right, he warns him that he has to hide his true self.   Again, shades of X-Men, which I always read as a reversal of the Superman story. While classic Superman is a wonder of assimilation, cheered and welcomed by humanity for his differences, the X-Men are feared and suspected for their differences, and in Man of Steel’s revision, Superman is not only an alien but alienated.

Christopher Nolan co-wrote and produced the film, and he brings his rebooted Batman sensibilities to the project—Superman is dark and brooding, not just orphaned, like Batman, but orphaned twice, by both Jor El and Jonathan Kent.  Before long, General Zod’s mean-shaped head is back and threatening to TAKE OVER THE WORLD, at which point the movie takes its cues from War of the Worlds, down to the giant tripods, and Cloverfield and other 9/11/2001-infleunced films, all shaky handcams and masses of people fleeing the dust, wreckage, and debris of falling buildings.  Meanwhile, a Transformers-like cityscape CGI battle ensues for, I don’t know, like an hour.  Superman wins! Yay! And kisses Lois Lane, even though Metropolis looks like it was hit by a hundred 9/11s.  No matter. In the final scene, the Clark Kent we know and love—glasses!—shows up in a miraculously restored Metropolis (although it took over a decade to put up a single new tower in Ground Zero), and we’re ready for the next adventure.

Quick! Sneeze on them!

Martians! I mean, Kryptonians!

Look.  I don’t want to be a jerk here.  But I took my boys, ages 11 and 15, to see this movie, hoping for—for what?   The way I felt when I saw Superman with Christopher Reeve, I guess. Or Star Wars, or Indiana Jones, or the many movies that I can honestly say felt like a formative childhood experience.  I’m not one to wax nostalgic.[5]  And there’s nothing exactly wrong with the picture, as the discrepancy between the fan ratings (largely positive) and critics’ reviews (negative to lukewarm) suggest.   But in borrowing from, let’s recap here, Avatar, Star Wars, Alien, X-Men, Hulk, Smallville, Batman, War of the Worlds, Cloverfield, and whatever I left out, director Zak Snyder and Nolan seem profoundly embarrassed by Superman himself.  Superman thrives on the dramatic irony of Clark Kent’s nebbishy persona, the one that Reeve did so well, the one that is as absent here as Superman himself is.  We know who he really is, and we’re special for it.  But there is no Clark Kent here, and no Superman.  Nolan’s Batman movies got to the core of that character, a man pushed by tragedy to the brink of psychosis, living in a noir nightmare, neurotically and impotently trying to avenge and atone for his parents’ deaths.  But Superman is not Batman, and Man of Steel does not get to the core of Superman.  In trying to reboot him, it abandons what I liked about the character–his contrasting personas, his simplicity, his good nature, his fun.    It should be awesome to be Superman.  We don’t need to learn that [spoiler?] he himself is somehow responsible for luring Zod to Earth, or [spoiler x2?] not saving Jonathan, that he struggles with who he is, that humans fear him.  (The only human who used to fear Superman was Lex Luthor.)  In the end, Man of Steel is a perfectly adequate summer special effects extravaganza.  It is not Superman.  Which is a shame.

Time: 55 minutes  


[1] “Superman.” What S word did you think I meant?

[2] Usually British accents come easier to Aussies and Kiwis.  Not so Crowe.

[3] Michael Shannon will make phrenologists of us all.

[4] I will admit that I was happy to see the chest hair.  I’m not only a member of the Chest Hair Club for Men; I’m also its president.

[5] Or wax anything. See: chest hair.

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The Many Masks of The Dark Knight Rises

Here is Tom Hardy, who plays Bane in The Dark Knight Rises:

A mouth!

I had no idea that I knew the actor from Inception and Warrior.  Yes, there’s the new bulk, the shaved head, and the costume. But mostly, I didn’t recognize him because of the headgear.  And the mask has raised the ire of two of my favorite movie critics.  Anthony Lane writes in the New Yorker that “Bane wears a crablike mask over the lower part of his face—a disastrous burden for Tom Hardy, whose mouth, sensual and amused for such a tough customer, is his defining feature. Via this device, Bane declaims his bold, anarchic sentiments; at least, I think they were anarchic. Given that I could make out barely a third of them, he may well have been reciting from ‘Clifford the Small Red Puppy.’   

And in Slate Dana Stevens laments “the film’s disappointingly uncomplex villain, the bald, hulking, pitiless arch-terrorist Bane, as played by Tom Hardy.”  She continues:

 Hardy obviously put an enormous amount of work into preparing for the role, bulking up his body and developing a strange, swooping voice that promises to give rise to a thousand late-summer Bane impersonations. But the choice to clamp a leather-and-metal mask over 60 percent of Hardy’s face for the entire movie means that, for all practical purposes, the actor’s diligent iron-pumping was in vain. Since we can’t tell whether the person producing that sound actually resides in that body or not, Nolan might as well have cast an already-huge body double and just had Hardy dub in the voice. Most of all, though, the mask is a mistake because we never get a good look at Bane’s face. With nothing to work with but a pair of darting eyes, Hardy can’t endow Bane with motivation enough to make him more than a generic bogeyman.

Of course. It makes sense. And yet, I can’t help but think that Bane’s mask makes a perfect visual and symbolic foil to Batman’s cowl—and scowl.  This blog entry’s opening image, one of the most common promo shots, depicts the contrast and symmetry perfectly: Bane’s face is a kind of negative, a reverse mirror image, of Batman’s; what is exposed on Batman—the mouth, the jaw, the chin—is concealed on Bane.  Batman’s head and eyes are disguised, whereas Bane’s are open.  Batman’s guttural voice is an affectation; Bane’s is the real result—in a major revision of the comicbook character—of the mask he cannot remove without dying.  When we first meet Bane at the beginning of the movie, he is hooded, but removing one mask only reveals another.  Covering the mouth, even more than the eyes as the source of his humanity, forces Hardy to act entirely kinesthetically; together with Batman’s costume and mask covering 95% of his own body, the choreographed fight scenes, seemingly graphic, instead become a version of Japanese Noh drama, where the masks themselves embody the characters’ distinctiveness and personalities, freeing the actors to use their bodies, rather than their faces, as their sole vehicles of expression.  When Bane finally breaks Batman, his final humiliation is removing Batman’s mask.  In doing so, he does not reveal Batman’s true identity—he takes it from him.

All of the faces of the Dark Knight movies have been masks.  The face of Harvey Dent—Two Face—is crucial to the new film, in that Gotham is presented only with his good side, his dark side hidden, an omission that Commissioner Gordon and Batman consider a necessary fiction but one that inevitably is revealed.  Two Face is like Bane, a reversal of Batman’s face, but divided exactly vertically rather than horizontally. His perfect split represents both his fractured psyche and his Manichaeism, a division that proves unstable within himself as well as Gotham.  

Bane’s mask-in-a-mask revelation was also used to introduce Heath Ledger’s Joker in the previous movie—one clown mask removed to reveal another beneath it.  But unlike Batman, even unlike Bane, who gets a few seconds of backstory revealed in the end, the Joker has no secret face, and no secrets.  His mask is his face and his face is his mask; he is exactly as he appears to be as well as a complete walking fiction.  He is his own shadow, his own mask.

And what I thought from the advance images to be Catwoman’s mask turned out to be her goggles flipped up onto her head, the only whimsical, lighthearted mask in the film. Cat suit and cat burglar aside, Selina Kyle of Dark Knight Rises is not the comic’s Catwoman at all, not even in name, as “Catwoman” is never said.  She wears a the thief’s domino mask seemingly to hide her self, but we discover that the one thing she truly desires is to be free of her identity, not to protect it at all.

But what lies behind Christopher Nolan’s mask?  What is his political ambition?  His artistic aspiration for the films seem clear enough: big sound and bigger spectacle.  But Batman himself, like the Riddler, remains an enigma: a hero and an anti-hero; a cautionary tale of unchecked, out of control ego—Super Ego!—but also the need for order; the 1% given everything but also the self-made man; a right-wing borderline fascist or a left-wing critique of same. The film blows up Gotham City, looking more like New York than Chicago this time around, continuing the previous film’s imagery of 9/11. Police officers are trapped beneath rubble; we see a geographically vague Middle East and detention centers.  The film seems to reference the War on Terror, Occupy Wall Street, the language of homegrown class warfare and New World Order conspiracy, symbolic pits with real walls to be scaled, the French Revolution, Kafka-esque (or Lewis Carroll-esque?) courts, a Fight Club-like Project Mayhem no longer content to blow up empty buildings, and a genuine allusion to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.   But what does any of it mean?  

Now that Lucius Fox has granted Batman “The Bat,” a great chiropteran hovercraft, we finally have a way to begin grasping the Dark Knight trilogy’s political import: it is a series of what Claude Lévi-Strauss coined “floating signifiers,” and what Roland Barthes amended to a “floating chain of signifieds”—that is, like a mask itself, it means exactly, and only, what people see in it, whether everything, or nothing.  And now, in the aftermath of the July 20 Aurora, Colorado, mass murder, the cinematic gunfire, mayhem, bloodshed, and masks (shooter James Holmes wore a gas mask during the massacre and had a Batman mask in his house when police searched it) inevitably take on darker new meanings.

Unfair?  Of course.  But Nolan’s brand of sustained ambiguity, something I am usually so quick to celebrate, has its own dark side.  

Here’s William Butler Yeats’s poem, “The Mask”:

Put off that mask of burning gold

With emerald eyes.”

“O no, my dear, you make so bold

To find if hearts be wild and wise,

And yet not cold.”

“I would but find what’s there to find,

Love or deceit.”

“It was the mask engaged your mind,

And after set your heart to beat,

Not what’s behind.”

“But lest you are my enemy,

I must enquire.”

“O no, my dear, let all that be;

What matter, so there is but fire

In you, in me?”

Like Dark Knight Rises, it too is an exercise in sustained ambiguity, in the challenge of determining desire or deceit, who is a lover or an enemy, and what is or isn’t behind the mask.  It seems to mean a lot of things, or, if poetry isn’t your thing, nothing.  Yet one meaning that I take from it is the notion that we need to stop worrying about what’s behind each of our masks—that the face we put forward is our real face, even when it is just a mask.  It sounds nihilistic, like the Joker. But it’s also, in many ways, all we really have. So perhaps Nolan’s sound and spectacle are all there is.  

And they’re enough.  

Time: 90 minutes. I knew this was going to be a long one before I started.

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A Cultural History of Spider-Man’s Web Shooters

Just point ‘n’ shoot!

As much as I love superheroes, I can’t say that the new Amazing Spider-Man movie needs to exist.  First, as long as it was being remade, time to drop the hyphen—just “Spiderman.”  It’s cleaner.  Second, the movie reminded me of seeing a high school play: “Aw!  So cute! They’re doing Spider-Man!” When Sally Fields showed up as Aunt May, I thought, “Aw! There’s Sally Fields pretending to be Aunt May!”  And then when Martin Sheen showed up as Uncle Ben, I thought,” Aw! There’s Martin Sheen! I love that guy!” before quickly remembering that he’s a dead man walking, to be gunned down before the second act ended so Peter could learn his lesson about power and responsibility.  This must have been how medieval audiences reacted to seeing Jesus-Christ show up in the passion plays: “I can’t believe he’s gonna  get killed AGAIN.”

But crucially, the movie revises, updates, and, for many fans, corrects what turned out to be a huge comic controversy of the 2002 Spider-Man.

Namely, the mechanical, wrist-worn webshooters (single word, no hyphen) are back. The organic vs. factory debate deepens.

This is a BFD.  When Spider-Man (hyphen for historical accuracy) debuted in 1962, bitten by a radioactive spider, proportionate strength and speed etc etc etc, he invented the synthetic webbing and pressure-sensitive webshooters himself:

 

Peter Parker as misfit, scientist, and genius is crucial to the early stories.  It’s not enough to get spider powers.  Much of his early success as a hero stems from the use of his pre-bite intellect and his own diligence and hard work, as opposed to mere accident: “So they laughed at me for being a bookworm, eh? Well, only a science major could have created a device like this!” And so his identification with his audience of bookworms is complete.  Spider-Man, as Stan Lee, in his usual overwrought, avuncular, carnival barker voice, introduced him earlier, is a hero like… You!  So he needs to have something comic readers can pride themselves in having; Spiderman is about smarts and perseverance, not just a lab accident. Later comics elaborated upon the original idea:

But while 1962 Peter Parker, as a non-sidekick, picked-on teen,  was unlike any of the other superheroes of that time—more like, of course, a stereotypical comics reader—he was also very much like most of the other 1960s heroes who believed in Better Living Through Chemistry.  Sputnik had been launched a few years earlier, the Space Race was on, kids began working with their chemistry sets in their rooms, and comics followed, whether to embrace the post-war American dream or just because the hero/scientist opened up new character and narrative possibilities.  Until that point, THE SCIENTISTS HAD ALL BEEN BAD GUYS!   Suddenly, Professor X (who had to open his own school to receive tenure, apparently) , bald and in a wheelchair just a Superman’s first supervillian Ultra-Humanite (hyphen?), looking like Lex Luthor, was leading the X-Men! Reed Richards took the Fantastic Four into space, then into crime-fighting! Bruce Banner started off as a nuclear gamma physicist before going green as Hulk. Over at DC, the Flash’s Barry Allen—usually thought of as ushering in the Silver Age—was reimagined as a police scientist; the new Green Lantern was test pilot/astronaut proxy Hal Jordan, whose power ring (two words) got a science fiction makeover from the previous incarnation’s magic origin. Spiderman’s invention put him in the center of the new wave of super science police.  

Forward forty years later for the first big film, though, for a changed world. The idea that teenaged Peter Parker could invent the webs himself suddenly didn’t seem realistic.  The dream that the brilliant kid his bedroom could do what millions of dollars in government and industrial research and development couldn’t? Ridiculous.  Just as important, the early 2000s saw a sudden upswing of anti-technology cultural forces—technophobia brought to the surface by Y2K, a wave of anti-factory farming, the Fight Club-style anger at the techno-corporate world, left-wing distrust of surveillance and electronic voting machines, and right-wing fears of a technologically driven New World Order. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had devoted all of two panels for Peter to invent the webshooters. Could a multimillion dollar movie really be that casual and still be credible?  So the webs became a part of Spiderman’s new powers, his body generating them organically, leaving the film open to hundreds of snarky commentators noting that spiders don’t fashion webs from, um, that part of their anatomy. Taken together, we see a nice example of Samuel Coleridge’s famous dictum about suspension of disbelief: audiences could suspend disbelief long enough to imagine that a bite from a radioactive  genetically altered[i]  spider could spontaneously generate natural webshooters , but not that Peter Parker could have invented the ‘shooters himself—broke, without a lab,  and alone in his Queens bedroom.  The dream of technological progress was over.

My hands are making what?

But only for a decade. Today, Andrew Garfield, playing Tobey Maguire playing Peter Parker, indeed invents his webshooters again, like Kennedy’s in the White House and it’s 1962.  Yet unlike Classic Peter, he doesn’t quite invent them by himself. While it’s all a little hazy (damn you, montage!), what Nu Peter seems to do is closer to what contemporary techies get.  Instead of opening his chemistry set, he draws from preexisting technologies—some prefab Oscorp tensile-strength web fluid here, some, um, other mechanical movie-looking parts and gears and awesome LEDs and stuff that looks like machinery there.  2002 was too soon to imagine the day when every kid would not just own a smart phone—as Peter plays games on his phone to kill time while waiting for the Lizard to emerge in the sewer—but that more than a few teens would also be savvy enough to jailbreak them, invent their own apps, and create original graphic art, digital music, and code, alone in their rooms.  The basement chemistry sets of the early 1960s have given way to the new tech mythos of Steve Jobs in his garage, not inventing the computer but rather remaking and improving it based on previous iterations of the same ideas that Xerox and IBM used but somehow didn’t really get.  C. 2012 Peter’s genius isn’t that he invents the webbing and webshooter a la 1962, but rather that he recognizes that the technology for them already exists, and he makes them work together.   Only a science major post-millennial could have created a device like this.  We love technology again, but in a remix, mashup, sampling, collage kinda way.

So it’s fitting that, in the Tobey Maguire version, Natural-webbing Spidey fights techno-corporate Green Goblin/Norman Osborne, who relies on the worst of tech R&D: metal mask and body armor, disintegration grenades, and deadly projectiles; in Spiderman II, Doctor Octopus recalls the 1940s and 50s Scientist Gone Wrong, becoming a crazed metal-armed cyborg, while again Natural-webbing Spidey has to set him right and destroy the dangerous incursion of technology into the human realm. Lots of other fantasy movies of the early 2000s shared this pro-natural, anti-tech spirit: The Lord of the Rings pits the sylvan elves and pastoral hobbits against Sauromon’s metal hammers, metal towers, bio-engineered monsters, and willful destruction of trees.  In those Harry Potter movies, technology is shunted aside entirely, unable to coexist with magic at all.  In Phantom Menace, those stupid Jar Jar-looking aliens use natural weapons… ah, I can’t even continue; I hate that movie so much.[ii]  

Yes, the Lizard is a bit of a retread of Doc Ock, in that he’s a scientist whose attempt to do good results in the potential destruction of New York again, his mind altered by a biotech-transformation.  But when Dr. Connors emerges transformed into the Lizard, he sheds his lab coat and his humanity, symbolically and visually the worst kind of natural—slimy, scaly, swampy, primitive, lizard brained.  New Tech Spidey is web savvy (har har) and smart, using his—and Gwen Stacey’s—head to configure a quickie technological solution to New York City’s new alligators in the sewer problem.  OK, technology may have created the problem, but, unlike earlier incarnations of superheroism, technology can also solve it. Call it Web 2.0.

So when the techno-pendulum swings back, expect to see some other new version of the webshooters for the inevitable 2022 reboot.  And when we do, will someone please get Uncle Ben a bullet-proof vest this time?

Or the cynical explanation: you can’t sell organic webshooter toys.

Time: 90 minutes. Over, but this piece is pretty long, and I even spent at least 10 minutes cutting tangents. Plus I managed not to make any Marc Webb (!!!) puns.  It’s also funny that my conclusion—2000s Spider-Tobey is natural and fights techno-bad guys, while 2012 Spider-Garfield is technological  and fights a natural bad guy—came to me in my sleep two nights ago. Call me 24-Hour Man. 


[i] The radioactivity concomitant with the early ‘60s Cold War was replaced by new wishes and fears of genetic modification for the 2000s. But that, Dear Reader, is the subject for another exciting post! Excelsior!

[ii] Irony alert: these seemingly anti-technology movies could not have existed without their recent advances in digital technology.  

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Avengers Resemble…

Seven strangers with nothing in common, except each other

The Avengers is not really a superhero movie.

You’d be forgiven for being confused. You must have been focused on the costumes, powers, special effects, and, um, I guess the superheroes.  And OK, a plot summary makes it sound a lot like a superhero movie: a godlike megalomaniac in a ridiculous helmet obtains a magical object with an awesome name (the Tesseract! Because the hexadecachoron must have been busy), teams up with illegal aliens from another dimension, and tries to Take Over the World, or at least trash Manhattan by means of enormous metallic fantail shrimp, which I think I made the mistake of ordering once. Only The Avengers can stop him!  But will they be able to set aside their differences in time?

Do you like my hat?
No, I do not like that hat. Goodbye.

This last question is the one that occupies most of the film’s nearly two and a half hour running time, before the final act devolves into the humdrum Epic Battle for the Fate of the World that has served as the resolution to every sci fi and fantasy movie for decades.  And it’s the one that makes The Avengers less of a superhero movie than a story of People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC.”  You know what, let’s skip the acronym on this one.     

The genre has a great literary pedigree, going at least back to Boccaccio’s Decameron (if the Tesseract weren’t available, then Loki could have stolen The Decameron!) in the 14th century, before getting its English makeover in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a few decades later.  The Decameron featured ten assorted people stuck with each other after trying to escape the Black Death; Canterbury Tales involved a long pilgrimage to the shrine in Canterbury.  But Chaucer really invented the notion that circumstances could bring together a set of unlikely travel companions as characters—a knight and squire;  a merchant, miller, reeve, and cook; a prioress, friar, pardoner, and summoner; the uncategorizable Wife of Bath, and many others, including, it seems, a fictionalized version of Chaucer himself.  The brilliance comes from the schisms and frictions created when people from different social types are forced into confines and conversation with one another. 

The genre then takes off in different directions as we move to America in the 20th century.  Characters telling their own stories in their own styles gets lost, but pilgrimages or enclosed spaces making strange companions flourished.  On the one hand, you’ve got John Ford’s 1939 masterpiece Stagecoach, which finds the 1880s version of the pilgrimage in its title, throwing together a framed outlaw (John Wayne!), a prostitute (with a heart of gold, natch), an ambivalent sheriff, a drunk doctor, an uppercrust wife of an officer (with a secret!), a banker (with a secret!), a Confederate gambler (with a…  ah, you know), and a few others.  That they’re being menaced with massacre by Geronimo is less of a problem than their own internal conflicts within the coach.  On the other hand, you have The Lord of the Rings, another quest that brings together unlikely travel companions and proves that hobbits and men, and even elves and dwarves, could learn to get along.  Star Wars and the many other adventure stories pitting knights (Jedi or not), hotheads, princesses, mentors, and aliens against one another seem indebted equally to Chaucer, Ford, and Tolkien.

There’s of course Gilligan’s Island, with its assorted cast, although why the Howells are on the boat is one of the island’s many mysteries, considering that they could have bought and sold a fleet of Minnows.

And there’s that other island replete with mysteries, from Lost, where, in our modern version of the pilgrimage or the stagecoach, an airplane crash brings together the straight man, the hothead, the druggie, and the bad girl, along with novel additions: a pregnant woman, a prepubescent boy, a paraplegic (as we would discover), a couple that speaks no English (or so we thought), an older (interracial) couple, semi-incestuous step-siblings, an ex-Republican Guard Iraqi torturer, an obese bilingual schizophrenic (although supernatural explanations would supersede psychological ones), and many more. 

Yet even Lost seemed modeled on another updated version of the Canterbury Tales: reality television, with its cast-to-clash archetypes.  And even then, shows like The Real World—for me, the original reality premise from which all the others borrowed–seems less real than a copy of a movie that was supposed to be based on real life: The Breakfast Club. 

Avengers Assembly!

Here’s the poster’s tagline:

They were five total strangers, with nothing in common, meeting for the first time. A brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse. Before the day was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls. And touched each other in a way they never dreamed possible.

So think of Avengers as the Canterbury Tales, with awesome weapons.  Or Stagecoach, but on that awesome SHIELD flying aircraft carrier.  Or The Breakfast Superheroes:

 They were six strangers, with nothing in common.  A billionaire genius philanthropist.  A recluse with anger management problems.  A gorgeous spy with a secret.  An exchange student who excels at the hammer throw.  An ROTC supersoldier who still knows what it’s like to be picked on. And Samuel L Jackson with an eyepatch.[i]  Before it was over, they broke the rules. Bared their souls.

And saved the world.

Time: 65 minutes.

Also, for no reason, Baby Seal Avengers!


[i] Although I deeply regret that Jackson/Fury never gets to say, “Avengers assemble, motherfuckers!”

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I Have Issues with Fictional Characters’ Names

I’m teaching Henry James’s “Daisy Miller: A Study,” a very frequently taught short story, in my just-started American lit class.  If you haven’t read it, or read it a long time ago, it’s an ostentatiously written drama from 1878 about a group of privileged Americans living in Europe and their reaction to a new-money girl, the title character, as seen through the perspective of Winterbourne, a young man who finds her, in a word repeated a million times, “pretty.”  Nearly everything about the story is ambiguous or could be argued from either side, which is one of the reasons it works so well in a class: is Daisy a strong, free-spirited proto-feminist, or a foolish girl?  Does she understand the way the vicious polite society talks about her behind her back—and if so, what does this say about her behavior?  Does Winterbourne really love her—or does Daisy really love him—or are they both toying with each other in different ways?  Does Daisy—does Winterbourne?—understand what she—or he?—is doing?  Does Daisy’s [do I really need to say Spoiler Alert about a story that’s over 130 years old? Fine. “Spoiler Alert.”] death at the end suggest a misogynistic society, a kind of death wish, recklessness,  or just a fogey author who needs to punish his own literary creation?  Is Daisy “innocent”—another repeated word throughout the story—or, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, experienced?  Is this even a fair question?  Does Winterbourne experience an epiphany at the end thanks to some revealed information, or has he learned nothing? And over a hundred years of scholarship more.

HOWEVER.  For all the complexity, intricacy, and layered ways of reading, one aspect stands out: for all of James’s painstaking realism and period detail—clothes, speech, scenery—Daisy’s and Winterbourne’s names are so heavy-handedly symbolic that they threaten to bring everything down.  “Daisy”=fresh, lovely flower; “Winterbourne”=bearing or aspiring toward cold. ‘Cause you know, winter kills flowers! So much for subtlety.    

Maybe it’s more complicated—Daisy’s real first name isn’t even “Daisy;” it’s “Annie.” Her last name “Miller” could be analyzed, and Winterbourne’s first name, “Frederick,” could be worked in.  But the headline “WINTER KILLS FLOWER!” is inescapable.

Last month I wrote about Lev Grossman and The Magicians.  As much as I love the novel and admire the marriage of magic and realism, the main character’s name, Quentin Coldwater, still leaves me, um, cold.  A book-smart kid from Brooklyn (something I know a little about) is far more likely to have a name like Chang, or Furci, or Jackson, or Reddy, or really, for that matter, Grossman.  Like Winterbourne, Coldwater connotes someone chilled in his emotions, and “throw cold water on” means “criticize something that people are enthusiastic about,”  both of which describe Quentin well.  (“Coldwater Creek” and women’s apparel, less so).    

And the alliteration is reminiscent of real-life writer Quentin Crisp; of course, Crisp changed his name from Dennis Pratt.  Quentin Coldwater is closer to Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, but for me is most reminiscent of superhero names—especially recent X-Men villain Quentin Quire—and the never ending litany of Clark Kents, Peter Parkers, Lex Luthors, and Bruce Banners.   OK, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have alliteration, but he has two first names, along with Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Steve Trevor (Wonder Woman’s love interest).   Speaking of Steve, Dr. Stephen Strange gets—who could have seen it coming?—mystical powers! Dr. Victor Freeze develops cold powers!  And Dr. Victor Von Doom’s parents should have changed every name involved.  I don’t know what he’s a doctor of, but I’m guessing it’s not English.  As J. Jonah Jameson (triple alliteration!) slyly notes, of Dr. Octopus, “Guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs. Four mechanical arms welded right onto his body. What are the odds?”  Pretty good, I’d say.    

Would you take a college course from this man?

The Wizard of Oz pits sweet but sassy Dorothy Gale (meaning: “a very strong wind”—cyclone?) against wicked Mrs. Gulch (“a rocky ravine”).  The Bourne Identity’s Jason Bourne—Quentin Coldwater gets the Winter, Jason gets the Bourne—rediscovers his true self after losing his memory and becoming, quote unquote “born,” if you will, by fighting the covert operations who had previously employed him.  Guy named Bourne gets amnesia.  What are the odds?   Lev Grossman held a contest in December on his blog to provide a last name for one of his main characters, Julia.  The result: Julia Wicker. Gal named Wicker winds up becoming a witch.  What are the odds?   

But what’s the alternative to non-symbolic names?  While Hermione Granger gets both mythological allusion and a last name metaphorically fitting her reading habits, title character Harry Potter gets the Everyman treatment—no allusions, no symbolism.  But then, the LACK becomes the point.  His nonsymbolic name symbolizes his very ordinariness and relatability.  The Big Lebowski’s unliterary name is itself funny, and like Daisy, he then anoints himself anew. (The Dude also Anoints.)  I would quote Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” here, but Romeo and Juliet’s names have become symbolic, even if they didn’t start that way. 

When names belong to fictional characters, then, they’re either already filled with meaning, or we can’t help but fill them with meaning ourselves. 

Even if it would be unfair to warn women with floral names to stay away from Winterbournes , or Coldwaters, in real life.  Maybe they should, just to be on the safe side.

Time: 60 minutes, not counting making the My Name Is Daisy Miller image or, as usual, uploading.

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Why Hourman?

Two of my favorite contemporary books, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in the character within a character The Watcherwoman, use clocks and time as a central motif of mortality.  I can’t go a week without another clock-as-metaphor contender—for example, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  But go back further in time and meet Hourman, an obscure superhero created in 1940 and occasionally brought back as a supporting member of various super teams.  He was a scientist (see also: Flash, Iron Man, Spider-man, Mr. Fantastic, Ant-Man, et al) who invents a miracle drug (named, um, Miraclo; see also: Captain America, Cloak and Dagger, Luke Cage, ad infinitum) and, of course, tests it on himself (see: Dr. Jekyll, Beast), presumably to avoid the IRB paperwork.  The drug grants boring entry-level standard with the vehicle superpowers (super strength, super speed, super endurance), but—here’s the twist—only for one hour. 

The Hour-Man!

A few things interest me about this character. First, his powers are essentially framed as a deficiency—the super lasts only an hour, unlike Superman, who’s always super, rather than against regular people, to whom it’s an hour more super than they’ll ever get [said in sassy tone].  The other thing, though, is his decision to go with the name Hourman, which seems pretty stupid for a scientist.  He’s essentially advertising his weakness: “Hark ye, villains of the world! Just wait it out; I’ve only got a good hour in me,” as if  Superman called himself Kryptonite Man (the name a villain would later take pretty much just to screw with Superman’s psyche).  Later writers would also turn Hourman into a Miraclo junkie, kill him off, bring him back, reboot him, and make him time travel (last one: fair enough with the name), same as everyone else in Hollywood.

Think of how different Hourman is from Sixty Minute Man, from the 1951 song.  The names are nearly identical, but whereas Hourman has powers for ONLY an hour, 60 Minute Man has powers prowess for a WHOLE HOUR!  

There’ll be fifteen minutes of kissin’

Then you’ll holler “Please don’t stop” (Don’t stop!)

There’ll be fifteen minutes of teasin’

Fifteen minutes of squeezin’

And fifteen minutes of blowin’ my top

I’m still amazed at how explicit the song is for its time.  Also, how awesome.  But taken together, Hourman and Sixty Minute Man  present a nicely double sided pair and image—an hour is on the one hand never enough, but it can be, um, a fine, long time as well.  And so that’s my operative image for the page.  

I’ll be writing about popular culture—books, movies, music, and television—for no more than one-hour sittings, and I’ll try to keep track of the time.  Writing this blog for me is really an experiment in process, like the freewriting exercises created and espoused by writers like Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg.  Except my goal isn’t words on the page as much as expressing a particular idea for a particular amount of time.  The point of my hour is not to force me to produce, although it’s that too, but also to force me to stop.  Writing time is like dog years—you sit down to spend ten minutes tweaking and realize that seventy minutes have gone by.  For something that I’d write for publication, I could spend an hour on a page, or a sometimes rewriting or re-punctuating a sentence. Hell, I’ve spent an hour just rereading something I’ve written without making any changes at all.  So that hour is both a self imposed limitation as well as an endurance test.  And when I take less than an hour, which I hope to for this entry and maybe others, I’ll indicate the time at the end.

So maybe you won’t turn into an addict, or holler don’t stop, but maybe you’ll return for another episode.

Time: 40 minutes, not including getting the basics of the blog formatting down. That took forever.

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