Superjournalists?

I just had an idea (and I can’t be the first to think of this) for a comic book or superhero RPG; The Super Journalists.

In a world with superheroes, but that more closely works like the real world, superheroes aren’t really all that necessary for fighting crime, except for brawling with super-powered villains. The problems the police have in catching criminals, especially in the developed world, is not a problem of firepower.

But what if you have a super team that devotes themselves to investigative journalism? The invulnerable man documenting atrocities in the Syrian Civil War. A photographer who can take pictures with her mind and upload them to the internet from anywhere in the solar system. A writer who can protect the identity of his source on a metaphysical level. An interviewer who can cause a red glow around her interview subjects when they lie.

I wish I was a better writer, or a better GM, because I would love to see this idea fleshed out. It’s also possible that I have been watching too much of the new Aaron Sorkin drama The Newsroom, and that it is time to re-read Transmetropolitan again.

Grace, unconventional spirituality and Leonard Cohen.

This is another old Livejournal post I’ve dredged up because I want to have my essays here.

Grace

In Christianity, the concept of grace refers to an unearned gift or blessing from God. The term is most often used in connection to salvation. While various denominations disagree on the details, the general idea is that salvation is a gift which cannot be earned; nothing that we do on earth can be good enough to earn ourselves a place in heaven. There just aren’t any good works good enough to “deserve” salvation. We start our lives in a state of sin (original sin and all that), and if we’re keeping score, nothing can get past that initial deficit.

So, then, if anyone is Saved, it is because God has decided to extend that gift even though the recipient doesn’t deserve it. By the Grace of God, a sign of god’s Love for mankind. Various denominations have differing theories on how one can screw up salvation and reject God’s Grace.

In Catholicism, one needs to go through the Church as an intermediary to receive forgiveness for one’s sins. In Calvinism, salvation is predetermined – God has picked out who is saved and who isn’t, and no amount of hard work is going to change that. If God hasn’t picked you as one of the Chosen, it’s hellfire for you. (Which then leads to antinomianism, my favourite protestant heresy, but that’s another post for another day).1

I don’t believe in Salvation, and I don’t believe in god in the sense most people use the term. Hence, my personal use of the word grace has a different spin on it. For me, grace is still connected with love, and with my own unconventional view of the divine 2. As I’ve discussed on before (in more angst-ridden posts), I feel that love is something that one cannot “deserve”, something than cannot be earned. Nothing that one does can be good enough to compel the love of another. When I match gazes with someone and see that light flash in their eyes, all the good and evil I have done in my life are like a candle against the sunrise. It’s something one can screw up, but nothing one does can make it happen.

It’s not just “Love”, though that’s part of it. The concept is tied up with elements of “love”, “ecstasy”, “joy” and to a certain extent “forgiveness”, particularly in the sense of freedom from the guilt and shame associated with things long past. Which is to say that “grace” includes, for me, letting go of one’s attachment to past traumas and allowing one’s self to fully experience the wonder of the moment.

I have a couple personal symbols that are tied up in the concept of Grace, in the idea of Love and Joy and Ecstasy as unearned gifts. The celebration of that Grace, in the myriad ecstatic experiences of life, is both a transcendent connection with the divine and an intensely human act. It’s a sense of joining with something bigger than myself 3. I feel that Grace is something I should be thankful for, and something that should be actively celebrated and shared.

When I’m in a good mood, anyway.

The Sisters of Mercy

Leonard Cohen’s song “The Sisters of Mercy” (lyrics here) is one of my favourite Cohen songs4. It’s often described as a song about prostitutes, but I’ve never been able to figure out why. Some internet research tells me that it was used as a theme for prostitutes in a movie (“McCabe and Mrs. Miller”), but as far as I can tell, nothing in the song alludes to prostitution. Wikipedia makes a terse claim that the song refers to a night Cohen spent with two women in Edmonton.

What the song describes, to me, is an experience of grace. In a time of darkness, the protagonist spends an evening of comfort and joy. The “sisters” give him a gift of “love that is graceful and green as a stem”.

The metaphoric mixing between sex, love and religion is a common theme in Cohen’s work. It’s used heavily in this song, and perhaps that’s part of why I like it so much.

When I was a confused, bitter teenager who didn’t know how to connect with people at all, I had two friends, women, from whom I learned a little bit more about how to be human. We weren’t lovers at all, but one of them introduced me to Cohen’s music, including the Sisters of Mercy. In a sense, I feel that time in my life was the beginning of the process of self-transformation that brought me where I am now.

The last verse has a tendency to echo in my head;

When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon.
Don’t turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon.
And you won’t make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right,
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right.

The people I love are fantastic creatures who bring grace and wonder into my life, and make my world a better place. If they do the same for someone else, that doesn’t take away from the gifts they’ve given me, so I think it’s great if they can do the same for someone else.

There’s something there, too, about the nature of grace – the gift the protagonist receives from the women is something specific in time. His happiness, perspective or tranquility isn’t dependent on them, and so he doesn’t rely on continued actions from them to make him happy. Hence his willingness to share.

That’s the way I’ve always read the song, in any case. Both a staunch defender of the patriarchy and a 2nd wave feminist might make a case that the protagonist is using the “sisters”, taking what he wants from them and then abandoning them, giving nothing in return. The idea of women as a source of grace is certainly laden with a lot of cultural essentialist baggage, and that’s something I occasionally wonder about.

I wonder what it might sound like to hear a song written from the other point of view, the two women?

1I’m not a religious scholar, so it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong here. If I am, I’d actually like to know what I got wrong.

2 Some day I might try to explain this in writing, but today is not that day. In brief, “thou art god” and “all things are true, even false things” are starting points.

3 And also something contained entirely within myself. It’s not religion if it’s not self-contradictory.

4 My favourite would be Famous Blue Raincoat.

Batman and Arrow

Legacies
I discovered, this weekend, much to my surprise, that the new show Arrow is quite watchable. It’s a sort of gritty, soap-opera friendly reboot of the Green Arrow character form DC Comics. In this version, he’s a rich kid, son of a wealthy industrialist, who is lost at sea and spends five years on a south east Asian island surviving and becoming a bad-ass.

When he gets back, he embarks on a scheme of bloody revenge against the corrupt businessmen of Starling City. It’s interesting watching the show in a post-Occupy world; Oliver Queen is a scion of the 1%, going after the 1%, theoretically on behalf of the 99%. Thus far, he is only going after the illegally evil 1%ers, though, the ones who use their money to traffic in drugs, extortion and assassination. While he’s talking about stopping the powerful from abusing their influence on those who lack it, the show stops short of having him attack the system that provides the mansion he lives in and the expensive gadgets he uses to fight crime. It will be interesting to see if the show is willing to cross that line.

B:tAS LogoI cannot help but contrast Arrow with a couple versions of Batman. My favourite version of Batman is, I think, the 90s Batman: the Animated Series. Like a lot of TV of that era (I’m thinking of Babylon 5, here), it had a lot of cheese, but also enough brilliant moments that I remember those more clearly than the cheese. Animated Bats is notable for the way the villains are written – most of the bad guys have a strong motivation, some past wrong that drove them to become criminals. In some cases, the show looks into the grey area between what Batman does (justice?) and what the bad guys do (vengeance?). In practice, though, what it boils down to is that most often, some evil rich guy screws over some poor schmuck, who cracks and puts on a costume to extract revenge, and Batman stops the villain while the rich guy walks away. The difference, when it is highlighted, between Batman and the bad guy, is that Bats isn’t willing to kill or endanger innocents. Arrow, on the CW show, is essentially a Batman: the Animated Series villain. Interesting contrast.

Christian Bale as BatmanThe more obvious and timely comparison, of course, is to the Batman of the Christopher Nolan movies. Both take a classic comic character and deliver a dark, gritty version. I think the Nolan Batman is a relatively subtle deconstruction of the idea of Batman. The Dark Knight Rises comes right out, several times, challenging the right of Bruce Wayne, child of privilege, to be the person meting out justice on his own terms. The three movies raise the question of whether or not Batman is inherently fascist, particularly using a traditional platform of inherited wealth to fund his battle. I think the biggest twist that Nolan brings to Batman, though, is making him a Dramatic Hero rather than an Iconic Hero. To paraphrase Robin D. Laws, an Iconic Hero encounters challenges, and by staying true to his Iconic Nature, defeats them while remaining unchanged. The Dramatic Hero, by contrast, is a character in a state of conflict. He encounters challenges, and is either changed by them or destroyed by them, even when he triumphs. Every Batman before has been, essentially, Iconic – even the classic Knightfall story line in the comics where Batman’s back is broken is essentially a premise threat story, where the drama is provided by putting Batman’s Iconic nature at risk before restoring it. Nolan makes Bruce Wayne into a person whose nature is changed by his experiences. The tension between his private war and the desire to move beyond the trauma of his youth define his personality, and ultimately rip Batman apart. I think Tim Burton’s Batman flirted with similar themes, but ultimately felt the need to cling to the idea of Batman.

I suspect Arrow’s Oliver Queen will prove to be Iconic as the show goes on – it’s too hard to maintain a Dramatic Hero’s arc on a show like Arrow without losing track of everything entirely. Which highlights another thing I liked about the Nolan Batman – it had a solid ending. It left things open for all sorts of followups, but really, Nolan wrapped up all of his threads. Arrow, being an episodic soap opera type TV show, will shoot for infinity, and try to find as many ways as possible to play with the premise without losing it.

Superhero Re-imagining – Rise of the Expies

I have been thinking about superheroes again.

I blame the Avengers. And the book Seven Wonders. And Mark Waid. And Cirque du Soleil, oddly enough. Cirque are the word leaders in good looking spandex outfits right now – they made the most recent Spiderman costume. They’re also the world leader in people doing amazingly athletic things in spandex (you may argue the Olympics have them beat – I disagree).

The recent-ish trend in comics is to acknowledge that, after 80 odd years of superheroes, there really aren’t any interesting new ideas left for superheroes. You really can’t come up with a new set of superpowers that hasn’t been done before. So the new approach is deconstruction and The Expy (warning! Tv Tropes link!). Alan Moore started the thing with Watchmen. Mark Waid did it recently with Irredeemable (Superman) and Insufferable (Batman). There are plenty of examples in between.

The deconstructed expy approach had some definite advantages. It lets the writer play with the tropes of the original, all the raw material of underwear pervert comics, without having to deal with the sacred cows of the original’s iconic stuff. As one reviewer of the Avengers noted, the original material suffers from time-shifting – characters from the 30s, or even the 60s, are overwhelmingly white, and there aren’t a lot of good roles for women. DC spent a lot of time trying to fix that (go Gail Simone!), then more recently decided to give up on diversity and double-down on the straight white male demographic. But you can only do so much with the originals – Batman will always be a rich white guy with emotional problems. Superman will always be a Christian white guy with traditional values. Captain America, symbol of the nation, will always be a white guy. Wonder Woman will always be a white woman who fights crime with a bathing suit and bondage gear. You can’t change the iconic elements of the character too far before the pop culture zeitgeist pushes back. The expy lets you change things in ways the originals can’t be changed, to tell new, interesting stories.

That’s the background I’m coming from right now.

Continue reading

Authoritarian Apologism

(Originally posted here)

In a comment on a friend’s post, something that’s been bugging me finally came together in my head.

In various recent events (Peter Watts’ Squidgate, the g20 mess, etc.), there has been a bunch of commenters (live and on the net, natch) who seem to cheer louder the more it looks like the police have abused their power. These are the folks who say things like “if a cop tells you to do something, you do it *immediately* or you deserve what happens to you”, “if you haven’t worn a uniform, you don’t get to complain”, etc.

The general idea of Authoritarian Apologism is that anyone that gets beaten up by the police, or the border guards, or anyone with a bade or a uniform, deserves what they get. That those forces are always justified in whatever they do to their citizens.

I’ve been trying to figure out what it is that drives me so nuts about this position, besides the obvious. It finally clicked today – it’s the same logical fallacy that drives Rape Culture victim-blaming and shunning of people who are ill. It’s the idea that Bad things don’t happen to Good people. So when bad things happen to someone previously presumed to be Good, the Apologist makes the inference that the person must be Bad. Because the alternative is that Bad things *do* happen to Good people. And that’s terrifying – the Apologist naturally sees zirself as a Good person. If something bad can happen to some random writer, to some random jogger or random tourist, then it means that something bad can happen to *me*!

And a lot of people can’t face that. So they go to great lengths to come up with reasons why people deserve to be beaten by cops, to be raped by their “friend”, to get cancer or AIDS. I mean, of course that guy deserved to be arrested and held in a pen in the rain overnight with no drinking water – did you *see* what he was wearing? He was *asking* for it! Good thing I’d never do something like that, so I’m safe.

It’s all about Othering victims so that the Apologist can feel safe knowing that bad things only happen to bad people. It’s about fear, and letting that fear make your world ever smaller.