Comic Books

042_rogue.jpgJust the other day, as I was going through piles of papers from the past, I came across my high school geology notebook. I spent a lot of time doodling pictures in that class. Most of those doodles were sketches of my bored subconscious mind wishing it were somewhere else. Fun to revisit, but ultimately not worth saving.

However, on one page I found a lot of doodles of my favorite X-Men characters at the time. In particular Rogue and Wolverine. But it was Rogue I most enjoyed drawing, and seeing my old enthusiasm for her rekindled a few memories from when I was really into mainstream comic books.

For those not in the know, The Uncanny X-Men comic book I’m talking about tells the continuing story of a band of superheroes that are mutants. That is, they were born with their powers because they belong to a new species of human beings emerging in the modern era. They are hated, feared, and misunderstood by normal humans and superheroes because of this.

Many of the stories have to do with the X-Men struggling against persecution and prejudice. They are “good guys” who use their powers to stop “bad guys”, but because of their bad image, they often end up with no thanks or even blame for the crimes they stop. They work for the acceptance of mutants in general society, but it’s a hard struggle.

My cousin collected the comics, which is how I was exposed to their stories when I was a kid. But it wasn’t until I ran into the cover of X-Men #182 that I was hooked, and started to collect comics seriously.

X-Men #182 is focused on Rogue. The cover shows her standing over a wounded comrade, standing firm against a hail of automatic gunfire from some unknown foe.

What struck me was how determined she looked. She was dressed in some sort of tres-chic punk outfit, and had a white stripe painted through the middle of her hair. The image she presented was one of confidence and individuality. I had to buy the comic and find out what was going on! From there I started collecting back issues to find out what Rogue’s story was.

Rogue’s mutant power is the ability to absorb another person abilities. When she touches them with her bare skin, the person goes into a coma for an amount of time equal to a multiple of the time she touched them. While the person is in a coma, Rogue is able to access that person’s memories (useful for finding out secrets), skills (she can suddenly pilot a plane), and most of all—their superpowers.

Rogue can “absorb” more than one person at a time. She can’t absorb the power of heroes who are energy beings, or extreme physical differences (e.g., wings or a tail). Robots are immune to her power.

She was originally a villain. Her adoptive mother was Mystique, the shape-changing leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. The Brotherhood was a group opposed to the ideals of the X-Men. They believed the only way mutants could be safe was to rule over normal human beings.

Rogue was just a snotty, arrogant teenager at the start. Her power made her useful in a fight. She could absorb one superhero, then work at absorbing several others. In one fight, she absorbed most of the Avengers and took on Thor!

It was around that time she discovered a serious drawback to her power. If she touched someone for too long the transfer became permanent. The victim’s mind would be wiped clean and Rogue would retain the victim’s personality within her own psyche as a separate personality. This made it impossible for all but the most powerful telepathic mutants to read her mind.

She ambushed Ms. Marvel as part of a plot to “power up” in an attack on the Avengers to free the Brotherhood’s members who had been captured. She needed the powers of Ms. Marvel for a long time so she held on to her victim for a while, making the transfer permanent (but she would find that out later).

Ms. Marvel’s real name was Carol Danvers, and she was an old friend of the X-Men. In those days the Avengers and the X-Men were on-again off-again allies. Carol was a kind of superwoman character. She could fly, had super strength (could bench press fifty tons), was invulnerable to normal harm, and she had a seventh sense that warned her of danger, allowing her to dodge attacks. Looks like that seventh sense didn’t work so well this time.

While Carol Danvers became a Jane Doe at the local hospital ward, Rogue at first reveled in her new stolen powers. But soon the Carol Danvers personality started taking control of Rogue whenever she was exhausted or daydreaming. Rogue began to lose her mind, finding herself living two lives.

Worse, she found herself losing control of her absorption power. The slightest skin-to-skin contact would trigger a transfer, and the risk of another permanent transfer seemed to have increased. She no longer had the willpower to assert her own wishes against Carol with additional victims in her head.

Her adoptive mother Mystique couldn’t do anything for her, and her Brotherhood buddies were not the empathic type. So she turned to the X-Men for help. This was a controversial move for the X-Men and a real test of their ideals. Could they take in an enemy, someone who had tried to kill them and had essentially murdered one of their friends by robbing her of her very identity?

Rogue was allowed to join the X-Men, but she wasn’t trusted. Carol Danvers (who had been hanging out with the X-Men as part of her recovery) decided to sever her ties with her old friends over the decision. Worse, since they were now harboring a criminal mutant their already poor image took a hit.

Despite all that, Rogue put her life on the line for her new companions. She proved herself again and again until her teammates began to reluctantly trust her. When she started to lose it again with her personality battle, the leader of the X-Men gave her the strength to trust her own power again. Rogue discovered remorse for what she’d done as a villain and for the first time began to allow herself to feel.

All this came back to me, looking at my doodles. A complicated character with a tough cross to bear, cool powers, and awesome outfits. She changed my conception of what a superhero could be and how much you could develop a character over time.

I flash back to the good scenes:

  • Rogue standing in front of Mariko (a normal person), taking heavy laser fire for her because of kind words, sacrificing her life to save someone she would have let die a month earlier. Eliciting sympathy from Wolverine who swore he’d cut her to pieces, letting her absorb his super healing power so she doesn’t die.
  • Rogue and Storm talking to each other about Rogue’s recent suicidal leanings. Rogue confessing that the first time her powers manifested was when she was making out with a boy in her bedroom. The terror it made her feel. And Storm, who had once fought Rogue with every ounce of her being in a scuffle at the Pentagon, offering her bare hand in trust to Rogue to show her she could control her power.
  • Rogue standing on the bridge where she stole Ms. Marvel’s powers, reliving the awful moment of tossing Carol’s comatose body into the river below with a bellow of victory, and breaking down in tears at how wrong she had been. Realizing she’ll have to live with her shame for the rest of her life.
  • Rogue being the last of her teammates standing in the face of the indestructible, unstoppable mutant-hunting robot Nimrod. Her teammate Shadowcat touching Rogue’s cheek just before she passes out to tell her how to beat Nimrod. Rogue absorbing all the X-Men at once, and using their combined powers to beat Nimrod to a standstill and force the robot to flee. Damn that was phat!

Hearts for Rogue, all the way.

044_dukecover.jpgI heard that a certain awesome auntie of mine is 60 today.  Congratulations on making it to the 60 mark.  That’s something to brag about.  K and I didn’t hear the news until this weekend, so you’ll be getting a late special surprise from us.  The image should give you a clue of what to expect.  And if you need another clue, it’ll be done in a style similar to this.

Hope you have a great birthday Duke.  You’re a super duper aunt to the max.

05-22-09 ETA: All done!  Will be sending soon Dukey.

This weekend I gathered together my disparate containers of tools and spread them out before me.  I meditated on what was before me and considered how little I’ve paid attention to my instruments of illustration.  In my mind, I imagined a fantasy of tearing down the old house and pulling out all the old roots.  I experienced feelings akin to shattering the foundations with TNT while my heart shook from the destruction.  The courage to go through with this comes from seeing other artists doing their work.  Their magnificent work strengthens my resolve.  My inside soundtrack keeps repeating, “Everybody is in the place, everybody is in the place.”

I removed all the junk or tools that no longer serve my purpose.  I threw out some of it.  Others I put away.  All my rubber stamps will have to go in a box with my sticker-stash and mail envelope magic materials.  That project I’ll be returning to.  It’s still forming.  I looked at how low my watercolor and colored pencil collection had gotten.  My marker collection is a joke, I haven’t been serious for twenty years.  The Kohinoor pens have seen better days, and now they’re all jammed with dried ink.  Most of my brushes haven’t been cleaned or checked in years.  My poster board and paper assortment is sub-par and all over the place.  I hardly know what I have.

If I look at myself honestly, this part of my skill is in bad shape.  I’ve been coasting, getting by with abilities from a place in my life that expired a long time ago.  I sit down and get to work.  I make a list of things I need to get.  The pens receive a revivifying soak and creak back to life again, slowly, with much coaxing.  The paper and board get organized, and I cut pieces down or arrange them according to where I think my need is pointing.  My toolbox, which is the nexus of what I use when it’s time for heavy duty work, gets a makeover.  New good luck charms end up in the holding tray.  I’m not riding by the skin of my teeth anymore.  I mean business, the new organization satisfies for now.

K and I head to the Michaels store.  She finds a number of pleasant, cheap goodies to advance her need to be creative.  I find most everything I’m looking for, but it’s hard work.  I don’t have immediate access to a good starbase with everything like I used to.  That’s okay, I’ll make do until I can “plus” my collection forward to where I want to be.  The critical pencils I need I find.  It’s good to have a fresh set of Verthins between the fingers again.  I heat my electric sharpener up so much getting them all ready, I have to take a break.  Things are heating up psychologically I think, and I laugh.  My friends, the people who support and encourage me are at my back in a way I can’t describe.  The new stuff gets put in the toolbox along with the still-relevant old stuff.  I feel like reinforcements are here.  Erasers, fine and heavy blades to cut and scrape the material, and a new brush for heavy saturation.

I get down to working on my cover design, doing preliminary sketches and filling them in.  I cut a line of boards and set them up for several attack runs at drawing practice, all to the measurements I’ll be needing.  I paint more messages from the unconscious and make adjustments to several works-in-progress.  It’s all tightly organized, and I move from one dance to the next, switching tools back and forth.  Before I know it, the old gun-shy jitters are breaking up and turning fluid.  Lots more work to do, and my skill wakes like it’s been in a coma.  The therapy will be tremendous, but I surprise myself as a flourish of line or perspective shines through the cracks.

Something a friend told me back in 1996 comes out of the depths of time to my memory.  “How’s your comic doing?”  I mouth the words to myself, “Nowhere, it’s dead.”  Her response:  “Dreams don’t die.”  Which also happens to be the title of a movie I saw once, about a graffiti artist who leaves the streets behind to become a successful graphic artist by the skin of his teeth.

Another friend says a week ago in so many words, “Hey, what’s that creaking sound?”  I’m reminded of a line from Fruits Basket – “What’s that sound?  It’s the sound of something about to break.”  In Fruits Basket the line refers to a curse and a thousand years of misery coming to an end for real, because it’s already been over for years.  My friend points (in her special way of conversation) to a mailbox inside my psyche filled to bursting with letters, the same message over and over again.

“What’s the use?” I say to myself.  “I wasn’t…worthy.  And I don’t care much for Harry Potter anyway.”  Then the mailbox bursts, and I’m swimming in letters that all say the same thing:  “Try again.”  Another song cues in my inner soundtrack from The Verve:  “You can do anything you want to, all you gotta do is try.”

So yeah 1996 friend.  I was the one that was nowhere, dead asleep from a nightmare that never seemed to end.  I’m waking up and finding out the comic was just a part of what I’m supposed to do.  I didn’t have enough vision yet to see that.

UFO Girl whispers into my inner listening:  Soon you’ll be ready to walk in the center of the saucer.

Flash back to my recent trip to Michaels with K.  The check-out woman at Michaels looks at the materials I’m getting, many of which are a buck.  She makes a comment about how I’m buying everything on the dollar menu.  I’m floored, because she’s referencing my current short duration personal savior.  That guy takes something small and makes it into a story filled with fun.  Yeah, I’m trying to be creative and filled with joy about something that’s my personal insight.  We chat for a while, while K chuckles to herself.  I say I wish I was that creative.  The woman runs my pencil refreshment pack through the checker, looks at them, and says, “You are.”

The external encounter is like I’m getting another flood of letters.  Mirrors and mirrors and mirrors again in my life, and I can hardly stand the shock to my small vision of who I am.  My fear of being struck down for growing to fill the form I inhabit roars loud and hard like a song.

UFO Girl whispers again into my inner listening:  Soon your music quest will find your soundtrack.

I’m listening and readying my instruments for writing and drawing.

I’ve finished the third set of revisions, and am going down the line of my list of weaknesses to double-check if I’ve missed anything.  Maybe another two weeks, and I’ll have a finished draft.

I’m considering the possibility of doing a short comic book series and posting it here.  Got all the materials and the know-how, I’m only waiting for the right signs to take place and I’ll do some work on what it’ll be.  For now, I’m reading and researching.  Must make stuff for people or Hulk smash!

My folks have a bunch of tapes of a quirky truck-driving friend of theirs that might make for amusing listening.  I may turn them into a podcast at some point, or heck, make my own weird audio show for a limited time.  Must make stuff!

As Guy Caballero from SCTV said, “We need programming!”

The garden had gone weird on us.  The weeds won the battle, and we have mice living in the garden now.  Peppers are all a bust, and the tomatoes have gone whacko – either dying out if they are the big tomato variety, or growing all over the place and producing a handful of tomatoes if they are the small version.

The leeks are ready and good to go – they are huge!  The onions have made an unexpected comeback, while the horseradish is looking not so good.  One of the wildflowers went nuts and grew huge, with wonderful blossoms.  Crumbs, the marigolds are doing amazing, and we were surrounded by bumble and honey bees getting busy.  It was a shock.

We planted some autumn lettuce, but we’ll see how that turns out.  Oh yeah, the corn turned out nice, we got about five half ears with maybe three or four to come.  K and I cut up the corn and cooked it, then had it with the small cherry tomatoes.  The bounty was good as a side for our dinner, but it tasted so very good.

I don’t know what to make of the garden this year, it defies my puny knowledge to the +1.  I can’t explain how we got some of one thing, and nothing of most everything else.  Meanwhile, the folks have tons of lettuce growing like mad, along with garlic.  Pump up the jam for them!

My cool dude artistic friend Xtine has a new astrology website, so here’s the plug.  I don’t actually go there as a watering hole, or it’d be in the blogroll.  But I’ml placing her in the classic links section, as that may be of interest to my esoterically minded guests.  I can’t wait to see what she starts putting into her studio website when it goes to the max.

I stumbled upon some interesting explorations of the Minotaur phenomenon by arctangent at this link.  I especially like how she draws the distinction between a maze (a place to mess you up and keep you lost) and a labyrinth (you always meet the center and it’s occupant, because the route is inevitable).

I’ve been fascinated by the premise of the book House of Leaves, a rabbit hole beyond human comprehension, even though I haven’t been particularly interested in reading the book itself.  Puzzle mystery books don’t do it for me, mostly because I’m no good at puzzles and get hung up on them trying to figure out what’s happening.

However, the idea of getting drawn into an exploration of a supernatural house to try and experience its mystery intrigues me.  I’ve always been very fond of the Minotaur myth, and find the background behind it really cool.  Arctangent’s analysis got me thinking about it again, and I can sense more clues to come from out there.

I managed to make my way through the stupendous beat-down and reach a sector relatively free of strange activity or mental illness clouds.  The Chaos Hordes are still out there, but at least I have a chance to perform decompression and decontamination on a mental level, and go through recharge and re-program procedures.

Sometimes, when I really need to be by myself and refresh the waters of purity inside me, I sit on the couch and read tons of books.  I got myself a whole bunch to go over, even though I’m not done with the last batch of goodies I got for myself.  I’m non-linear when it comes to exposing myself to people’s ideas.

I also took the time to be open to new transmissions from the divine universe.  I watched Yellow Submarine for inspiration and took away some affirmations of insight to feed my recharge.  I noticed a lot of friends have been revealing themselves as internets-connected to me.  Their dedication and creativity invigorates me.  Bless you guys and gals, I’m down with you +1.

I think I have a topic that I’ll open for discussion.  K admonished me for not doing more topics on that note, despite my miserly stance.  Stay tuned for something along those lines soon.

At work I got a new assistant, and she rocks the mike.  I guess I just have to admit to myself that the age of the DP is over, and it’s the era of AW.  All the weird stuff going on out there in the world, I’m just trying to stay alive and not get jacked.  But I have to remember things can get better.  Now that work is back on main power, I can envision other things.

So here’s what I’m reading right now:

  1. Joseph Campbell – Historical Atlas of World Mythology Volume I: The Way of the Seeded EarthPart 1: The Sacrifice
  2. Joseph Campbell – Historical Atlas of World Mythology Volume II: The Way of the Seeded EarthPart 2: Mythologies of the Primitive Planters: The Northern Americas
  3. Manga:  Natsumi Ando / Miyuki Kobayashi – Kitchen Princess Number 2
  4. Manga:  Rumiko Takahashi – InuYasha Number 2
  5. Manga:  Akira Toriyama – Dragonball Z Number 1
  6. Manga:  Akira Toriyama – Dragonball Z Number 2
  7. John Dewey – Freedom and Culture
  8. Rachel Roberts – Avalon / Web of Magic Book 1: Circles in the Stream
  9. Tamora Pierce – Song of the Lioness:  Alanna The First Adventure
  10. Scott McCloud – Making Comics

I lumped these puppies onto my pile because I need to reconnect with primal things inside me.  I’m looking to learn more about things western culture just ain’t got.  I want to read about heroines, not heroes.  And I’m looking to explore info on the roots of my society, and the specifics on how comics are made.

Who knows where this investigation will lead, but I need to experience the lifeforce of new thoughts and ways of feeling.  Reloading on the shields, warp, and blast-a-roos means getting your brain in order with the rest of your bodily needs.  You may think that sitting on a couch reading is all about the mind, but no.  It’s working a lot more than some secondary organ that thinks it’s running the show.

I finished reading the graphic novel/trade paperback Watchmen for the first time. I suppose it’s about time, seeing as the movie is coming out (which I won’t see until it comes out on Netflix). The comic people have only been talking about it for decades as one of the best comic series ever produced. Now that I’ve had the experience of reading it, I can finally comment and throw my two cents into the collective reaction. Spoilers follow, so beware, ahhrooo!

For those not in the know, Watchmen is a story about a group of super heroes under the premise, “what if super heroes were real?” It takes place in an authoritarian world, where America won the Vietnam war because of superheroes (well, one really), and Nixon is running for his third term. It’s America versus the Russians, with a nuclear confrontation approaching over Afghanistan. Super heroes who don’t work for the government are not allowed to practice as heroes, and the public more or less hates them.

Into this background comes the story of a number of heroes who have mostly retired or sold out (as it is often believed of the so-called “hippies”). They are getting fat, old, and nostalgic. Someone begins killing or neutralizing them one by one, and an investigation begins. At the center of this is a plot to change the world by a mysterious villain, who wishes to save the world by causing a disaster so horrible the world will have to unite in order to face it. The heroes fail to stop the plot, and become collaborators in a new world order based on fear of a manufactured enemy. Almost sounds prophetic, given this comic came out in the eighties.

I read this book, and I admit it’s done well considering it’s stance. Back then, the dark realism must have seemed really cool back then. I don’t know how well it holds up now, however. It’s too safe, ultimately, skirting the boundaries of super hero comic books but never really crossing over the safety line into where comics need to go now, to be relevant. Now that we’ve arrived at a time that evokes some of the background of the book, the book itself is no longer a warning of a nightmare world to come but a sign of how long things have been stagnant and flat.

I’ll say it again. Comic book heroes are obsolete. The premise being put forth shouldn’t be “what if super heroes were real?”, because that’s the same as “what if super villains were real?” The super villain in Watchmen is a former super hero himself, a reflection of the dark truth that super heroes are becoming power fantasies for the rich and powerful, instead of the weak and oppressed. “I have seen the face of the enemy and the enemy is us.” The premise should be “what if super heroes were real and were still super heroes?” Because super villains exist by default. Can any normal person fight a concentrated system of power by themselves? The super hero is an attempt to manifest the transcendent function in the psyche.

1. The super heroes in Watchmen are all without morals.
All of them have cracked under the strain of being super heroes and become disconnected from normal people, the people they are supposed to be serving.

Dr. Manhattan: Commits war crimes on a vast scale. Does research and development for the military. Manufactures raw materials for big business. Has no empathy with human beings. Never follows his own discoveries of the universe – showing wonder at the thermo-dynamic miracle when it suits him, never following up on his “puppet strings” observation to its logical conclusion, ignoring his one-channel omniscience so he can pursue his “work”. At the end of the story he abandons earth to pursue delusions of godhood. This guy is the biggest moral coward and one-sided nutcase in the story.

The Comedian: Wow, talk about a cynic who has totally cracked. Murders and rapes without remorse. Mocks anyone if they show a shred of moral qualms or decency. But his tough guy act is all a farce – when he finds out the big dude plot, instead of joining in he runs and waits to die.

Rorschach: Psychopath who terrorizes criminals, sometimes torturing them and sometimes killing them. Never once applying to himself the standards he applies to others, a victim of abuse who now abuses others, he dies abandoned by his only “friend”, with his journal presumably about to inspire someone to follow in his footsteps into insanity.

Night Owl: At first, he seems like the only genuine nice guy in the film. Rich dude with lots of cool gadgets, Rorschach’s only “friend”, and no vices or skeletons in his closet (that we know of). He caves in like a pack of cards when the chips are down, however, becoming Miss Jupiter’s next surrogate father, abandoning his “friend” like it was nothing, and agreeing not to reveal the doomsday plot of the villain.

Miss Jupiter: The only female character besides her mother. The military pays her to be Dr. Manhattan’s lover, so he will have a “human connection” and continue to work for the military instead of spacing out and leaving the solar system. After a while she can’t handle Dr. Manhattan’s lack of empathy and leaves him for Night Owl, who shows her at least some affection and a chance to be a co-partner. Unfortunately, she exists pretty much as a satellite character, having no impact on the story at all. Her dialogue with Dr. Manhattan to return and save the earth is wasted – he’s only acting out his watchmaker complex and having her mouth the lines he knows she will make.

Veidt: This disconnected, cuckoo guy is “the world’s smartest man”, taking as his role models Rameses the second and Aleksander the Great (ancient world monarchs, what wonderful role models). He ends up being the super villain, enacting yet another elitist plot to “destroy the world in order to save it”. His idea is that in order to stop the world from blowing itself up, it needs to be unified under a greater threat. He teleports a fake alien monster into Manhattan, causing a psychic shock wave that kills half the city and drives half the survivors insane from nightmares. Great guy. What’s even better is how everyone else but Rorschach buys into this. So Dr. Manhattan kills Rorschach and a new age of fascism begins.

Yes, these are “real” super heroes…who also happen to be “real” loonies. Where are the sane or moral “super heroes” as there would be in real life? It’s one-sided, and the audience is cheated of any chance to see what the whole big picture is. Most people don’t notice, because they are too busy fawning over how “realistic” and “cool” the messed up psychos and morally bankrupt characters placed before them are.

2. Normal people are ridiculed and demonized.
Every single normal person in the Watchmen world is a thug, punk, grimy street dweller, disinterested working stiff, cynical jerk, or clueless citizen in need of some educatin’ in the ways of the world. There’s some character development in the form of a newsstand operator and a young boy who reads comics, but the face of “the public” is an extremely negative one, as if they alone were to blame for all the horrors going on in the world.

It’s an elitist worldview, not uncommon of those who regurgitate the stock apologist support of power structures. The “great unwashed mass” cannot tell right from wrong, nor can it make decisions — look at the world, look at all the democracy the people have, and look how they squander it! Well, it’s obvious that an aristocratic super heroic elite must make the decisions for them by staging a catastrophe and shocking everyone into accepting absolute state rule.

All the popular movements of the sixties, which have grown and expanded since then are largely absent, except as scenes of riots and mentions of unrest throughout the country. Granted, it’s a “dark alternate world”, but the premise that people have become mindless rioters is one-sided. None of the heroes ever explains what people are upset about, except that “super heroes are taking over”, based around a police strike. That strikes me as an interesting statement – were super heroes becoming the new state police, and due to protest the power centers were forced to outlaw unsanctioned heroes to maintain power? Whenever the public protests a state act of violence that elites wish to propagate, they take it underground and “covert”. Iran-Contra, anyone?

That means people aren’t the mindless drones portrayed in the story. They have “realistic” self-interest and a desire for “the right thing”. It just isn’t what the “powerful” want. This reveals that the lens of the book is strongly on the side of the super heroes who are themselves privileged aristocrats. We are reading through the point of view of jerks and loonies, and expected to identify with them! How’s that for propaganda and indoctrination? The book you are reading is meant, by means of sleight of hand, to make you sympathetic to the people who own your country and make decisions for you.

3. Time for the Unforgiven of comic book heroes.
I’m not going to go into the convoluted logic of the ending, and how messed up Veidt’s infantile view of how the world works is going to make things worse for normal people. Nor am I going to comment much on Dr. Manhattan’s two-faced viewpoint on the world, collaborating with a plot he knows doesn’t mean anything and abandoning earth to go play god somewhere (or just go irrevocably crazy in the vast emptiness of space without anyone to point out his shadow).

If this is what super heroes really are, one could be tempted to lose faith in heroism or the struggle to better humanity by means of “super powers”, which really means collective powers moving to counteract damaged structures and build systems that actually work. I think the time has come for mainstream comic book writers to admit that what they are writing is meaningless escapism without fun that serves the interests of the rich and powerful, and either confess they are sons of bees whacks churning out industry, or walk away and do something more interesting with their talents. Like, you know, actually cross the line.

The story is over. Super heroes have been shown to be failed idealists like the “hippies”. They tried to change the world and failed. Just keep telling the same old story over and over again thinking you are cool and hip. Too late! The ship has sailed, and we’re all left holding the bag of an art form that has rotted into compost.

Time for a new beginning. The next generation of youngsters growing out of the compost to save us old losers from the dragon that slew us, and make comics count again. Because the truth is, the idealists of the past didn’t fail, they succeeded in softening up the belly of the beast so the next attack run could get set up. Watchmen gets one thing right, with Dr. Manhattan revealing to Veidt that “it never ends”, that Veidt’s “end of history” moment is temporary. The unwashed masses could come back at any time and finish the job, because it is they who hold the “ultimate weapon” of public opinion.

The geeky kid about to pick up the journal is wrong in an objective sense, but in a subjective moment, it’s the image of hope – that the story is not over. Now you get to write what happens next. And if what Dr. Manhattan said about thermo-dynamic miracles is true, then there is a probability that it will end, or begin anew.

Watchmen is a well crafted and enjoyable nightmare world. But if it’s on Time Magazine’s “100 best novels”, I know exactly who Watchmen is serving. Sorry dudes, but with Pluto entering Capricorn, we’re all about to find out just how crazy it can get. The “hippies” are getting their second wind, just like a WWE wrestler who’s been taking a beating for twenty minutes.

Hulkin’ up, fools!

Unfortunately for our wallets, and perhaps fortunately for our reading desires, K and I got our claws on some more manga. It’s tough, because the library doesn’t stock all the latest issues, and reading them online isn’t the same as having it in your hands, though it does slake the addiction overall.

K has been reading Fruits Basket and Hot Gimmick way ahead of me like gangbusters, and I’ve fallen behind. However, I’ve gained the upper hand in knowing what’s going on in Love Hina and Claymore, both of which are really keeping me entertained and happy. It is important that citizens be happy instead of discontented!

We picked up a new series, called Death Note, just to stir up the pot. As if we haven’t enough storylines to latch onto. We saw an entirely different aisle setup with countless new titles in the local Barnes and Ignoble, which put us in a slight sweat. I didn’t ever think I would say, in this day and age of crummy entertainment choices, I am for once inadequate and overwhelmed by the choices of good reading.

Things can get better.

So, in Death Note, this death god named Ryuk gets bored with hanging out with the other death gods and decides to go to earth and stir things up. He leaves his death note, which is a magical notebook, on the earth for anyone to find. The death note has magic powers that adhere to certain rules and contains instructions on how to use the death note properly. The most important power is that if the owner writes a person’s name in the death note while visualizing their face, that person dies.

An honors high school student named Light finds the book and claims it. At first, he is skeptical, but after he kills two people with the death note he is forced to believe. Most people at this point would get rid of the book or try to keep it safe without using it. But Light decides to embrace the full powers of the death note and use them to rule the world while eliminating all crime.

Ryuk becomes Light’s neutral companion. The death god is interested in seeing what a mortal does with his former death note, and is something of a compatriot in Light’s secret. So far, the series is an exploration in the limits and boundaries of the death note, and Light’s struggles to retain control of the growing chaos he is causing.

As hundreds of criminals all begin dying in the same way, the public begins to call the deaths the act of a figure of justice known as “Kira” (or “Killer” in Japanese), while the governments of the world begin an international manhunt. The leader of the investigation is a nameless, faceless operative known only as “L”. This makes “L” immune to Light’s direct power, as Light cannot kill someone unless he knows their real name and what they look like.

Thus begins a cat and mouse chase, as L sets up traps to learn about the scope of “Kira’s” powers and clues to the identity of what people are calling a “telepathic killer”.

The drama is intense, as Light dodges pursuit and kills those trying to learn his whereabouts. He’s smart for a kid, and he has the advantage of the death note with its many permutations. L does everything in his power to learn clues without revealing anything about himself. Any move could prove fatal. Neither of the two is dumb, but one of them is going down in the end.

What’s fun to read about for me is how Light uses the death note. For example, it is possible for him to set the conditions of the death within certain limits. He can set up someone to die right when he needs to intimidate an agent on his tail, or cause a witness to commit suicide several days later to avoid suspicion. He can influence people’s behavior at the moment of their death so that they utter misleading information or do things that implicate other people.

Is there a price for this power? As Ryuk explains, the main price is in the moral and mental strain it places on its owner. We watch as Light goes from considered, adolescent declaration of self-centered desire, to mass murderer who will stop at nothing to accomplish his goal. His fall is so total and self-inflicted, can even the victory of “L” be enough for the boy to pay for his crimes? I sense a dark fate for this fellow, and yet I can’t stop turning away as he invents horrific deaths for his enemies.

And all the while, Ryuk stands by watching the chaos and finding delight in the havoc he’s caused. What is his purpose? Is he learning anything? Hard to say.

But it’s awesome, good fun. At last, some inventive thinking and hard consideration for premise and story. I was getting worried there.

K and I haven’t been to a movie since Pan’s Labyrinth. We go to about one movie every year. She’s given up on movies, while I still cling to the hope that the next movie-going experience will be different. I’m always reaching for that 1% chance of something great.

The buzz for the new Batman movie got me caring enough to try and convince K to go with me. She agreed, we bought a pair of matinee tickets online, and got ready to try our luck again. Don’t ask me to remember the title, all the Batman movies seem the same to me now. Batman’s Big Day Out, Batman Goes To Camp, Batman’s in the Army Now, etc.

Wow, a matinee costs seventeen bucks. Okay, there’s a two-buck service charge for the convenience, but Good Lord. Seven-fifty a ticket? The normal price is ten bucks. We spend fifteen bucks on a large soda, a hot dog, and large popcorn. So that’s thirty-two dollars.

By comparison, K and I could buy or rent a DVD for ten bucks or less, and use the rest to buy a pizza and a six pack of beer. We wouldn’t have to be crammed into sardine-size seats, be distracted by jerks and their bright cell phones texting away, have idiots backing their seats into our knees, breathe air reeking of sweat and farts, and watch twenty minutes of ads and previews for movies that reek or recycled thought-vomit.

The movie is two hours and twenty minutes long, plus the twenty minutes of advertising and ten minutes you spent finding a seat away from the mutants. Judging by the silent, immediate way the audience left at the end to relieve their bladders, it was a long three hours. And no Gandalf or Eyes-of-Frodo to squee at, neither.

I’ll summarize the entire plot in one sentence, so if you hate spoilers, take the tape out now. The plot of the movie is “Batman becomes the bad guy because he isn’t good at anything else.” The entire movie is about Batman failing at everything so he can claim the title of “The Dark Knight”, the “hero people deserve”, that is – the unstoppable thug we all wish we were when it comes to revenge-justice power fantasties.

Never mind how stupid and unheroic this is, it’s boring and it’s outdated. I want to see Batman kick butt and solve crimes, not wallow in nonsensical melodrama and mindlessly react to villains who outthink him at every turn with two bit plans that wouldn’t fool the average person, never mind The World’s Greatest Detective.

That’s probably the worst thing about Batman Mark XVIII, he’s an impotent character that nobody can care about on any level – butt kicking, police work, human drama – nothing. Christian Bale is miscast; he is unable to bring any weight to his portrayal of either Batman or Bruce Wayne. Every time he growled his raspy voice as Batman, I wanted to cringe.

I think the only reason he got the Batman part was because of his role in American Psycho. The casting agents must have figured he could play a one-note lunatic, so why not a complicated psychopath vigilante like Batman.

There’s a scene where the Joker (the main bad guy), played by Heath Ledger, is dangling upside down from a line. It’s the final showdown and the Joker has “lost”, or rather, he’s out of unlimited instant-trap points. Heath’s upside down performance as the Joker dances circles around Christian Bale’s weak attempt at being Batman. The Joker may as well have been talking to himself.

During this scene, I realized Batman was still using his raspy batman voice during the back-and-forth. Even though the Joker isn’t scared of him and knows Batman’s real identity! How stupid is that? Batman hasn’t got squat to say to the villain. As usual in all Batman films the villain has the best lines and scenes. Is the movie about Batman or the Joker?

Heath’s performance as the Joker is the only good thing about the movie. He reinvents the villain as a diseased mind incapable of caring about anyone or anything except his schemes to stir the Batman into action. His portrayal is mesmerizing and scary while at the same time sympathetic. I would say the Joker does a better job of portraying the inner id of people who want to cut loose than Batman’s rich, effete snob.

The movie’s creators wisely choose to leave Heath’s Joker an enigma. His past is never explained, and the police are unable to dig up any information on him. Like a true fool, Heath’s joker moves through every boundary and into any situation without pause. Every time he is on screen the movie picks up intensity and he forces his co-workers to stop phoning it in.

It’s a sad state of affairs when it takes a suicidal actor to convey art of any substance in a Hollywood movie. Thank goodness Heath’s amazing performance was in this movie, because otherwise we’d be stuck with a horrible, unmatchable mess.

And what a mess it is. Whenever the Joker is off screen, the movie reverts to a dragging bloat of multiple plots and unbelievable contrivances. The Joker seems capable of creating instant traps at any time – warehouses full of gasoline barrels rigged to blow, hospitals lined with hidden explosives, and an endless array of “crazy people” who do his bidding. The whole Joker enterprise is hard to believe – Batman passes up this huge organization of psychos to take out the mob? Huh?

I’m also bored with the same old female character that exists only to be put in jeopardy and/or die to motivate the hero. With no personality of her own. It’s old, its crummy writing, and it’s just not full of pathos anymore. Every time I saw Maggie Gyllenhaal, I kept thinking of her role in Secretary and wanting to see that movie instead. Sad.

Aaron Eckhart, who plays Harvey Dent the noble prosecutor who falls, is also miscast. He’s too good-guy to play a man with a twisted dark side that comes out under tragedy. His background and reasons for falling never make sense to me. I get the movie’s message that “anyone can fall”. I just don’t buy it here. The guy goes from noble and dedicated throughout most of the movie to random psycho in a matter of minutes.

His look as Two-Face the villain is laughable – where as Heath’s Joker in ordinary grease paint comes off as creepy and unsettling, Harvey’s Two-Face looks over the top and distracting. I mean, the giant eyeball and bones showing through were ridiculous. What, it wouldn’t have been enough for him to just be scarred? Some marks don’t need to be gore fests to cut deep into the psyche. That was the point of Harvey Dent in the original “Dark Knight”.

Basically, despite the hype that this is a “reinvention” of the franchise, it’s exactly like all the others before it. You have multiple villains clogging the screen (the Scarecrow from the last film even has a cameo). Multiple plots competing for dominance. And a Batman who never makes any sense as a character.

Batman only reacts to the villains. He never shows any brains, deductive reasoning, or foresight. He can drive a car or a motorcycle like greased lightning to get to the next death trap in time to watch himself fail, and he can beat up thugs and SWAT members when it has nothing to do with the plot, but he can’t show any sign of emotion when the circumstances call for it.

His love interest is murdered and the most grief we see is him sitting in a penthouse with a glass of (presumably) alcohol. His friend and supporter on the police force is (apparently) assassinated saving the mayor, and the most we see is him beating up some thugs to show how “angry” he is. The man who represented hope and was supposed to let Batman retire and live a normal life is maimed and brutalized for life, and Bruce Wayne spends about sixty seconds consoling the guy before leaving. Granted Batman is a psychopath, but if he doesn’t care about his contacts even as casualties in his maniacal war on crime, why should we?

The super high tech gadget that erases civil liberties so Batman can have a chance of finding the Joker fails to find the villain in time for his next plot (despite the fact that there must be literally dozens of careless crazy Joker operatives throughout town setting up the ferry trap, complete with hacked power systems and cargo holds full of explosives). Batman breaks the law and invades our privacy, and he still can’t find the bad guy. How sad is that?

At the end of the film, we have this cockamamie speech from Batman about how he must shed his “good guy” image and become the Dark Knight. I still can’t make heads or tails of the logic. Harvey Dent turned evil, but people must believe he was good, so Batman will take the blame for the man’s death, even though Harvey as Two-Face killed several people, and the Joker totally whupped Batman’s behind with a belt, and now Batman can be the hero people deserve, because he’s not a hero and Harvey is the real hero, and now the police must send the dogs after Batman, because he’s bad now and taking the blame he doesn’t deserve. Run Batman, run!

Please stop.

So here’s what we got:

Fruits Basket
Premise: Family of cursed shapeshifters adopts good-hearted orphan girl.

Notes: I didn’t know this was one of the most famous and popular of manga in the U.S., but I can see why. K and are totally hooked and can’t get enough. There’s this extended family of people (the Sohma family), most of them teens and young adults, and each is possessed by a vengeful spirit of the Chinese zodiac (there are twelve of them, one for each animal). When hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they change temporarily into a cute version of the animal they are possessed by. The head of the family is a malicious person who stands in as the ruler of the zodiac.

The main character, Tohru Honda, tries to manage her day-to-day school and work activities while handling the intrigues of the Sohma family. She also has two friends in school who watch over her since her parents died. Tohru’s only superpower is her relentless optimism and good will, matched against the dark secrets of self-loathing and abuse within the Sohma family. A lot of the book is conflict and self-discovery. Each character struggles to become a better person and face their past.

On the surface, the characters do a lot of ordinary daily life stuff. They have to get good grades, make work deadlines, or cook a dinner on short notice. There are factions within the Sohma family that shift and change depending on who is present and what dark secret is rearing it’s ugly head. The main character Tohru has to endure stressful challenges and handle adult responsibilities when she hasn’t even graduated high school yet! But the core of self-discovery never lets up, and never disappoints. Characters who come off as maladjusted jerks suddenly become sympathetic as you see their side of the story and they strive to get better.

Tohru’s own journey takes a long time, and she can be pretty annoying and simple-minded at times, yet there’s more to her than she knows and her character holds up despite the strain.

Verdict: I don’t want it to end.

Hot Gimmick
Premise: Girl living in a company apartment complex gets mixed up in a revenge plot between her childhood tormentor and a childhood friend.

Notes: Reading this, I’m reminded how vicious kids can be regardless of economic circumstances. This is a disturbing tale of a parental community struggling against itself over class lines, with the teenagers picking up the pieces and not always behaving decently.

What do you do when you’re in a family with damaged interpersonal dynamics and a shameful past? How do you cope when ulterior motives and a lack of parental guidance taint people your own age?

I found a lot of the subject matter in this book disturbing. I almost turned away, but then I saw how necessary and real it was. A teen reading this might find comfort and strength in seeing how a crummy neighborhood is just some people’s lot. You aren’t crazy, it’s the environment you’re growing up in.

But even in a neighborhood of dysfunction, you’re involved in a changing tale of growing up. There’s no doubt that Hatsumi, the main character, is involved in life. It’s refreshing to see a female character going through such turmoil and having a meaningful adventure.

Verdict: I’m involved now, and I’m with Hatsumi all the way.

Love Hina
Premise: Failed college applicant loser becomes owner of an all-girl’s dormitory.

Notes: I’ve heard it said that comedy is a man in trouble, and this manga fits the bill. You have Keitaro, the stereotypical loser (unattractive, bad at sports, not too bright, no special talent), trying desperately to get into the best college in the nation and failing. He refuses to try for a lesser college that might accept him. As a result his life is passing him by and his future is looking bleak. Of course, it follows that no sensible woman will have anything to do with him.

His family can’t stand the shame, so they kick him out and he goes to stay with his grandma. She owns a hot springs house converted into a small girl’s dorm. Keitaro’s aunt helps to run the place. There are five teenage girls of various ages, representing common archetypes (the brain, the martial artist, the crazy foreigner, the artist, and the shy innocent) also staying there. Grandma goes on a trip and leaves the house in Keitaro’s hands. He accepts the job so he’ll have a place to study. His next chance to enter his dream university is coming up.

Unfortunately, being a landlord means new responsibilities, and the five girls do everything in their power to get him to give up and leave (they see him as pervert and want grandma back). How will Keitaro cope with all these shenanigans and find time to study for another test he will likely fail like the two previous years?

At first, I dismissed this as just veiled voyeurism with a funny guy cover. But now I’m starting to root for the guy as he finds his way into a mature way of thinking. He refuses to give up his dream, and he isn’t afraid to ask for help. The interpersonal relationships are growing on me. You start to see how everyone needs each other, and how it’s okay to be yourself. Being a loser isn’t the end of the world. Life goes on.

Verdict: I’m hearing the Rocky music here.

Because I’m the Goddess
Premise: Misfit guy becomes sidekick of Goddess on a mission.

Notes: Reading this, I thought the setup was one mighty dumb idea. The revealing outfits of the Goddess Pandora looked like un-necessary cheesecake to me. I mean, you’ve got a wisecracking pet cat breaking the fourth wall. However, again I see there’s more to it than this.

Pandora has been sent to earth, accompanied by the talking cat, to retrieve several “gifts”. These “gifts” are negative qualities that have possessed women on earth and given them evil powers. They become giftmasters and enslave someone to do their bidding and cause trouble. Their slaves can turn into magic weapons capable of killing Pandora. She locates the “gifts” by identifying the slaves – they have a psychic collar and chain that leads back to the giftmaster.

Pandora runs into Aoi, a sourpuss guy, and discovers he is her sidekick. Pandora, being a Goddess, has magic powers. But when she uses her powers she turns into a normal girl. She can only regain her Goddess self by kissing Aoi. When in the presence of a giftmaster, she can kiss Aoi and turn him into a magical weapon. She can then break the chain between giftmaster and slave, and retireve the gift.

The complication is that Aoi doesn’t want to have anything to do with Pandora, but he’s stuck with her until she completes her mission.

This manga’s got a wacky side. The cat is the best part, with his funny one-liners and stoic attitude. Aoi is actually a decent person, but he clearly needs to work out some issues with people, something Pandora forces him to do by her mere presence. Aoi’s troubles as her sidekick make him more interesting, but I like that. It’s refreshing to see a sidekick be the focus of the struggle. You have the conflict between divine and mortal embodied in a super-powered relationship.

It’s hard to emphasize with Pandora, as she’s a force of nature and used to being venerated. Her own quest is harder to follow because the writer is holding back her big secret until the end. The manga only lasts three volumes before it concludes, which cuts back on her development. Just when Pandora starts to acquire a cast of characters besides Aoi and the cat, and seems to be relating more, the climax of the story comes.

But I like her quest. The idea that she is removing “negative qualities” from women on earth is cool. It’s only after she starts to see Aoi as a person who can get hurt, and relies on her friends, that she is able to push her quest to its conclusion.

Verdict: Needed to be longer. It’s hard to execute a complex, long-term “Goddess seeks human quality/Loner discovers his heart” story in so short a time.

Premise: Demons roam the earth and only the claymores can defeat them.

Notes: It’s a medieval world. Shapeshifting demons, called Yoma, are infiltrating and attacking the settlements of humanity. No human can detect or stand up to them. Claymores, women who have become half-demon and half-human hybrids, are the only hope. They have superhuman fighting abilities and demon-locating senses. All of them use huge two-handed swords called claymores, thus their nickname. They travel from place to place, locating and killing Yoma for a fee.

I decided to take a chance on an action-based manga here. I find that I go through such manga faster, as a lot of panels are filled with fighting maneuvers without dialogue. For me, that means the story has to be good enough to make the fight scenes worth examining. The tale of the hard line fighter with the humanizing sidekick is not a new one, but I found myself drawn in and liking what I saw.

The sidekick is a boy named Raki. The first story concerns the Yoma that infiltrates and murders his family, then begins attacking the village. A claymore named Clare is called in and she dispatches the Yoma. Raki’s village banishes him and he joins her until he can find a place he can live again. Together, they have adventures as Clare fulfils her duty.

The claymores all have to be put down eventually, as the demon inside them slowly takes over their mind. So new claymores are always coming in as the last batch burns out. Clare is believably both inhuman and human. She has nothing to look forward to. Yet she cares about Raki. Her past is not so different from his. Unfortunately, while Raki has hope, she knows where she will end up. Someone must fight the Yoma to the bitter end.

The guy in the story is another sidekick, and I like that. It can be an adventure even if you’re a secondary dude with no powers. He’s learning things and seeing sights no one else would. One gets the sense that Clare’s attachment to Raki (cold and pragmatic as it is) is allowing her to resist the demon inside her longer. I like how for once the doomed defender is a woman, and she is following a calling of her own volition. She’s effective as a heroine. The action is all about her. The strongest male fighters lose ground against the Yoma. Clare gets the job done using a combination of unexpected tactics and quick thinking.

Verdict: Thumbs up, all the way.

Overall, not bad at all for a first-time dive into the material. It makes me excited about comics again, in a way I haven’t been for ten years.

Back when I was studying in Japan, I thought it was mega-cool how comic books were a way of life in that country. Store shelves were often jammed with huge volumes. Each volume was filled with tons of different stories. It blew me away how you could literally create your own collection of favorites and get pure satisfaction from whatever your urge for story was.

For the last few years, I’ve noticed that the big chain bookstores have been carrying huge collections of manga volumes. That is, comic books collected into trade paperbacks of a size that’s easily transported in a purse or bookbag. The manga collections easily outstrip the graphic novel section in size and scope, both of mainstream Marvel/DC has-beens and independent trade paperbacks combined.

K and I decided to finally start getting involved, so we sat down and selected some titles. I kept getting the feeling that there’s “energy” here, and that what’s happening in comics is where the manga is. The other stuff is just the artifacts of an old road that’s rapidly aging itself into obsolesence.

Manga are usually rated by age, from 13-18, and/or by genre (comedy, fantasy, etc.). I would place a lot of what I saw in the bookstore as “teen” overall, with an attitude directed towards the teen mindset. But, I found these books to be amazingly addictive and engaging for the adult mindset, and that’s no mean feat.

There’s supposedly a line between the “teen” subset and the “mature” subset, but I didn’t find myself attracted to anything “mature”, as it reeked too much of the phony sex and violence of mainstream comics. If there’s a particular strength in these “teen” manga, it is the focus on relationships and conflict. These make for good stories, so even if you don’t get the Japanese cultural references or like the attention to cuteness, very often there’s a core that keeps you reading, and reading.

What gets me is that this is a new thing I haven’t seen in mainstream (and many independent) comics. You have a defined baseline outlook that unifies the entire “teen” manga setup, and you have a vast diversity of premises that means you can find satisfaction if you look. There’s a reward for getting involved I just don’t see in western comics.

And judging by the shelf space and the amount of young people crowding me out, there’s a huge demand here. Well, duh! Young people are reading comics who have never heard of Captain America or the X-men or Superman or Crumb’s Mister Natural, and have never known the tangled history behind mainstream comics.

That makes me happy. Go, young people! Instead of the same old young turks kicking old farts off the block to claim a share, this is a new subculture that doesn’t owe us comic dweebs a damn thing. It’s like back in the day, when I picked up a Richie Rich comic and nobody took it seriously, but it was my interest and I found my own world power in it. That special feeling has been born anew in another time and another place, and who knows what mighty powers these youngsters might be developing.

Would it even be powers? Maybe it’s a whole new kind of culture and civilization that delves into something the superheroes and neurotic loner stories of the past lost touch with. The oldsters can’t go back, but maybe they’ll be redeemed by the struggles of the next generation. Because right now, the comic wasteland suffers without the dream.

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