SHIELD, HYDRA And Evil

Okay while I understand it’s just comic book stories and there has to be a definitive good vs. evil story line, I have to admit I was a little disappointed by the HYDRA story line in the last episode of Agents of SHIELD. I think it would have been much more interesting and subversive if it was discovered that SHIELD had been slowly taken over by HYDRA operatives or people who supported the fascist goals that HYDRA stood for.

Seriously, in the real world, look at the CIA, who have done things that many of us would consider to be pure evil: hell, I’d say that most of our troubles in the Middle East and in Central America and even internally have been caused by the CIA. They use many of the same methods as the Soviet KGB or the Schutzstaffel of the Nazis, what do you think would happen if they came right out and started calling themselves that? Better to keep the original name and pretend what you’re doing is for the good of the nation.

I was making a point of this elsewhere, talking about the old Brotherhood of Evil Mutants: why would anyone intentionally join something that openly proclaimed itself to be evil? Magneto certainly thinks (and he makes a good point) his cause is a good one, protecting his people from persecution. The people who flew the planes into the World Trade Center didn’t think of themselves as evil, they had a holy cause. I’m sure the SS and the KGB never saw themselves that way, even if they were just enjoying being brutal for the sake of being brutal, they thought what they were doing was perfectly reasonable. The slave-owners of the Confederacy didn’t think they were evil, they believed (and many still do) that they had the favor of God.

So anyway now it appears that we will have a kind of Civil War between SHIELD and HYDRA. But the HYDRA operatives inside SHIELD severely hurt their cause by coming out into the open like that, what purpose did they think they were serving? We know SHIELD is eventually going to win out, because it’s still a comic book story even if it is a Joss Whedon thing, but I have to say I think it could have been handled better.

On Editors And Censorship

“Creative people listen to [editors] because [they] make that a condition of employment. [Editors] are worse than useless when it comes to creativity. [They] are intrusive.”
Dave Sim

I think Mr. Sim is equating editors with censors here, and in that vein I disagree. Even the best writers can get caught up in their own work and not see how it appears to others. A good editor, who has the respect of the writer, can actually improve on a work with subtle changes. And all due respect to Mr. Sim, whose work I admire, someone could have told him to tone down the rants or at least publish them separately, as I feel his personal issues became far too much of the Cerebus story.

Even censorship can be a positive thing: after all, the Smothers Brothers thrived on pushing the edge, it was CBS that went overboard by canceling them. Two of Seinfeld‘s classic episodes became that way because they had to find creative ways to get around censorship: how funny would The Contest have been if they were free to just say “masturbation”? Or Not that there’s anything wrong with that?

I agree with Mr. Moore (from the article) that working for a big corporation like Marvel or DC can really stunt the creative process, and he has every right to disassociate himself with them (and kudos to him for continuing to work even when the situation changed, as he pointed out, he had a responsibility to others who were working), and of course Sim, to paraphrase one of his own characters, did more than just pick a side and start swinging, he started his own side.

I made a point in an earlier post that I don’t submit any of my work for critique: I’m confident enough in my own writing style and skill that I don’t feel the need for that kind of validation, if a company wants to perform my play, that’s recognition enough for me.  And I can also edit my own work, and a harsh editor I can be: I’ve had to remove some very good lines because they don’t fit into the greater work that I’m doing, and I will rewrite whole scenes if I don’t like the tone, even if they’re important to the story.

But if someone makes a very constructive comment, I listen, and sometimes I wish I had someone working with me who could show me a new angle or way of thinking.  I still have the final say, as I think all artists should, but I won’t discount any constructive comment out of hand.

Happiness

Image

This little comic shared by someone on Facebook recently kinda got to me, because it’s so simple and happy. There’s so much cynicism in the world today, so much negativity about who we are and what’s happening to us, not just in America but all over the world, except for a very few places that seem to have figured out that it’s not always about money.

Even the stuff that is supposed to be uplifting comes across to me as either creepy Randian “success” stories or syrupy, condescending twaddle. I was starting to watch a documentary on PBS about North Korea and I just had to turn it off, it was so disturbing to me.  And as much as I feel for the people who live there, I also feel for the people of West Virginia, who for years have enthusiastically voted for people who have, for decades, been poisoning them. And I have very little confidence that things will change: like alcoholics, it’s not something that can be imposed from without, it has to come from within, and after so many years I just don’t know if they’re capable of understanding that there’s no honor in suffering.

I wish things were that simple, that life wasn’t such a hardship for so many reasons. It doesn’t have to be this way, but we work so hard in making it that way that you wonder if this is what people really want: to work at jobs that make them miserable, to watch TV shows that are primarily about people screaming at each other or ridiculing people who are less fortunate, to take pleasure when they see someone else suffering. To literally take food away from children and just throw it away. This isn’t happening in some Third World country like North Korea, it’s happening here, and there’s absolutely no reason for it.

Something has to change, and what makes me sad is that it will either take so long that I won’t be around to see it, or that the change itself will be worse than what we have now. And what makes me sadder is that we bring it on ourselves.

If the circus was in town, maybe I’d go. If I could borrow a couple of bucks from someone!

On Cerebus: “Melmoth” and “Jaka’s Story”

Cerebites“, a blog about the indie comic book Cerebus is doing reviews of different chapters of the Cerebus story line.  Here’s my take on the two most recent entries, Melmoth and Jaka’s Story.  Information about Cerebus can be found here for those not familiar with the series.

Melmoth is, as far as I’m concerned, a complete and utter waste of time, and as I saw it then (and still do), I think it represents what happened when Sim either read some Oscar Wilde (one of the most brilliant writers in history) or decided to make commentary on it. Either way, as was mentioned, it did absolutely nothing to move the story forward. If Sim wanted to do a story about Oscar Wilde he should have done a story about Oscar Wilde, and left it out of the Cerebus timeline altogether. And that’s all I care to say about it, because it isn’t even worth the time it takes for me to say how awful it was.

Jaka’s Story, on the other hand, remains for me the absolute high point in Cerebus. Better than High Society, much better than all of Church and State, and far superior to anything that came afterwards, none of which I will even dignify with a critique.

You can tell Sim was gearing up for a lot of commentary on feminism and relationships with the sparring between Jaka and Rick: Jaka, who never in her life had any trouble finding work, is frustrated with her husband, whose cheery disposition belies the fact that he’s really unhireable in that place at that time, and who, frankly, is the kind of person for whom a regular, 9-to-5 kind of job will never work. Jaka just can’t seem to accept that and it’s ruining their relationship, though she still loves him, and Rick adores her.

Several things in Jaka’s Story still move me: Cerebus apologizing to Jaka for how he’s treated her, his tears listening to Rick and Jaka make love, Pud’s sad and lonely life, conversations repeating in his head because he has no real idea how to relate to people, his lusting after Jaka and his remorse when he nearly acts on his impulses. I know none of this moves the larger story along, but it represents some real growth for the characters and a greater insight into Jaka’s life, her courage and boundless optimism in the face of poverty and hardship. “Oscar” is also at his best here, the perfect dichotomy for the other characters, rich and secure in his wealth and in his skills, yet sadly so awed by Lord Julius, who reserves his greatest disgust for people who are such obvious suck-ups.

Several parts specifically of Jaka’s life growing up in Palnu (and unlike Sim’s later text on religion, it’s all to me quite readable), also move me: the scene with the monsters in her room is so much like what happens to so many children, the paralyzing fear that grips all young children who fear the unknown and have little grasp of the world outside their little bubble, is terrifyingly believable to me. Life in the upper echelons of Palnu, where paranoid conformity ruled and people with far more wealth than they know what to do with scramble for meaningless social prestige, is to me an awful existence. What would any of them do as leader of Palnu if they managed to get there? Does Lord Julius really know what he’s doing apart from simply staying on top? Weishaupt had Lord Julius pegged perfectly: how he mistakes staying one step ahead of his adversaries as leadership, and I always wondered if there was a single moment of honesty in his relationship with Astoria (from both sides, as Astoria clearly had ambition of her own and was ruthlessly manipulative). Cerebus may be crude and occasionally manipulative but you almost always understood where he was coming from.

There’s not as much humor in Jaka’s Story as there is in what predates it, but Oscar’s wit is very funny (in an early review of Cerebus, the writer claims that Sim has a lot of nerve writing dialogue for Groucho, but he’s up to the task:, you could say the same for his daring to write for the great Oscar Wilde), but also some lines, like “You do NOT ask a guest in my home to make A PILLAROFFIRE!” still crack me up.

Book Three, dealing with Jaka’s imprisonment and a closer view into life as run by the Cirinists, is also wonderfully written, Jaka’s hysterical fear of what is happening to Rick while she’s in jail, Ada’s reaction when she discovers who Jaka is, and her perspective on Jaka’s childhood events, the humorless and condescending Mrs. Thatcher, and the evil thing she did in revealing to Rick about Jaka’s abortion, this is also very moving to me. And finally, the last words of the series, Jaka’s sad return to the comfort and luxury of Palnu, a perfect ending.

Jaka’s Story for me, not only represents Sim’s best work on Cerebus, but I see it as one of the truly great graphic novels, up there with Eisner’s A Contract With God and Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley Of Wind.

Heroism

Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives. They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests.

DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio, at the At the DC Nation panel at the Baltimore Comic-Con in 2013

John Stepp counters:
While there is some merit to the idea that heroism requires self-sacrifice, I think DC Comics (and other storytellers) takes it to destructive extremes. A character struggling to help or protect others must have some good in his/her life, or else suffer moral and psychological decay. And if superhero comics insist that doing the right thing requires that you be miserable all the time, doesn’t that instruct young readers that villainy is the only sane way to go?

I’ve never been a huge fan of DC comics, so I can’t comment on how accurate John’s statement is as it pertains to them. But this made me think of two larger questions, the first of which is, what, exactly is a hero? For me, I think the best words to describe heroism belong to Frodo, who said

It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.

Which naturally goes back to the idea of sacrifice. It’s not necessary to sacrifice your life in order to be a hero, though. A lot of heroes would really rather not die if they didn’t have to, and I personally think there’s something wrong with someone who intends to die in order to complete a task, the death part being more important than the task itself. And lots of people sacrifice themselves in many ways: giving freely of their time and skill to help others, they certainly aren’t thinking about losing their lives in the process. Most of us are heroes in that regard. So you could also define heroism in terms of selflessness, as we might identify selfishness as evil, despite the teachings of Ms. Rand and her supporters, who seem to believe selfishness is a form of heroism all its own. I don’t happen to agree of course, but there you are.

But let’s talk about superheroes in particular, since that’s what began the subject in the first place. Most superheroes are vigilantes, they place themselves beyond the law to prevent evil (or their definition of it) in small ways and large, and their motivations for doing so aren’t always the same. Some, like Superman and Captain America, ally themselves and even become part of the legitimate authorities, others, like Batman and Spiderman, choose to work primarily apart from the law, and in Batman’s case one of the things he fights against is corruption within the police department. Superman and Captain America are driven by loyalty, loyalty to Earth in Superman’s case, loyalty to the U.S. in Captain America’s. Spiderman is driven by guilt, because he refused to act to stop a criminal who eventually murders his Uncle Ben. Batman is driven by a desire that no child should have happen to them what happened to him. Then there are the X-Men, driven by a desire to prove people’s prejudices wrong, that despite their physical differences they are still, at their core, as human as the rest of us. Actually my favorite superhero origin story is Dr. Strange, who was a gifted but selfish surgeon whose hands were damaged and he was seeking magical ways of restoring them when he came upon the Ancient One and was moved to become his disciple and follow in his footsteps.

The second question is the one John alluded to: is it necessary to be miserable all the time in order to be a hero? To, me, I say no, but I don’t necessarily think that being miserable equates with villainy either. I honestly can’t think of very many heroes I would consider to be miserable, I think Batman probably is, but I always kinda felt Batman, at least the darker side that we’ve seen more presently, is really kinda crazy, in the same way Joker is crazy, but not just quite. Spiderman, whose fame came chiefly because Peter Parker had human problems most of us can identify with (which is why he became my favorite superhero), certainly has had dark moments but overall I think he’s happy, and there was a time in the 80’s where he was very self-confident and happy, and I think when he was able to share his secret (and his life) with Mary Jane he was certainly happy. I never thought of Superman as a character, he seems to me to be more of an idealization of a principle, like John Galt to Objectivists.

In the real world, some people seem to define heroism as putting up with a lot of crap on a daily basis because you need to keep your job. It’s the kind of work ethic we often admire but frankly I think people who see that kind of misery as a constant in their lives and not just something they’re puting up with until things improve aren’t exactly heroes. And I see all too many people who, when confronted with someone who is happy with their work, makes decent money and has a secure retirement awaiting them, think How can I bring them down to my level? rather than How can I be happy like them?. That’s neither courage not heroism if you ask me, that’s just nuts.

Superhero comics have changed a lot over the years, I’ll leave the question of whether they’re better or worse now than they were, say, fifty years ago, either to someone else or as the subject of another column. Probably the former. But if John is right and comics are implying the heroism requires constant misery, then there’s something wrong with the comics industry. We can be heroic and still be happy, actually I think being happy is an ideal we should strive for. Just a thought.