Wednesday, August 31, 2011

On Presidents and Monuments


Order of business #1: Soldier and scholar Philip Pangrac, proprietor of the blog Lawful Good Wonk (whose updates you can track on the "Folks Bloggin'" section to the right), recently posted a few words about President Obama. His whole statement resonated with me so acutely that I feel I must share it with you in its trenchant entirety:


Barack Obama does not have my vote. I'm not happy with all he's accomplished so far since taking office, but more to the point I'm not happy with how he doesn't fight for anything liberal or progressive. And don't get me started on how he's handled civil liberties and the War on Terror. Is he as bad as McCain would have been? Probably not. But that doesn't mean he's any good.

And what annoys me is that even if he wins (which I expect will happen), it's still a victory for the Republicans, because even if the Democrats take back the House and gain in the Senate, no progressive agenda will come forth. Obama isn't going to come out on January 20th, 2013 and say "Now that I no longer have to worry about reelection, I can push forward on what really matters: an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, full marriage equality for gays and lesbians, a strengthening of the EPA, dissolution of the Department of Homeland Security, an end to wiretapping and extraordinary rendition and indefinite detention, criminal trials for those who used torture, and a higher tax rate on the wealthiest two percent and major corporations."

Barack Obama doesn't want any of those things. I'm not sure what he wants that I also want.There must be something, but will he fight for it? Will he stand up to the Republican party?

Fuck. No.

In 2009 Obama, with a Democratic Congress, could have come out swinging, fighting for and, dare I say, forcing the passage of groundbreaking legislation to undo the damage done by the Bush administration to America's economy, our liberties, and our standing in the world. He could have shamed the Republican party for their hard lurch further and further Right, and he could have shown the country the value of progressive ideals and the relative sanity of the Democratic party.

Did he? Did he take control of the conversation, did he set the parameters of the discussion, did he define who he was and who the Republicans were? No. Not at all. He let the other side paint him as un-American, anti-American, socialist, arrogant, elitist, naive, inexperienced, and whatever else you want to recall. He let the party that had just been trounced in two consecutive elections make demands, and whatever demands he didn't give into outright he entertained as valid.

He wouldn't and won't use the bully pulpit, he wouldn't and won't use his charisma and popularity to sway the public. He's less unlikeable than any Republican (or just about any), yet he can't get anything done because he won't use the tools at his disposal.

Either he is weak or he is uncommitted, and neither is a quality that should be found in a president.

Who will I vote for? I don't know. Maybe the Green candidate, maybe I'll write someone in. The only important thing is that I vote my conscious, [sic] which means I vote for the person I feel is best suited for the office of the Presidency.

And Barack Obama is not him.


The only point on which my conscience disagrees with Mr. Pangrac's is that I still feel obligated vote for Obama as a matter of moral pragmatism. A vote for Obama is essentially a vote against the Bachmann/Perry/Romney Schrödinger's candidate on the other side. A vote for a third party is a plus-zero for both candidates' "scores." In light of the crass nationalism, dogmatism, social irresponsibility, and aggressive ignorance that has lately metastasized throughout the G.O.P. like a belligerent lymph-borne cancer, the election of any Republican candidate to the top of the Executive Branch could reasonably be expected to carry disastrous consequences. It puts a bad taste in my mouth, but voting for a lousy and ineffective President is the most expedient means of preventing an outright dangerous President from entering the White House.


Order of business #2: About a week ago, my friend James (mentioned here so frequently because so few of my other friends have either the gall or gumption to intrude upon my solitude) emailed me a link to a transcript and recording of "Beyond Vietnam," his favorite Martin Luther King speech. He had already given me a printout of the transcript some years ago, but probably felt compelled to send it back my way after revisiting it himself. If I had to venture a further guess, I'd say all this media hubbub about the recently-completed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial inspired him to go back over some of his favorite Dr. King literature.

I had read the text of the speech before now, but never actually listened to it. After doing so, I now feel that erecting a monument to the man was a well-intentioned mistake.

Not that Dr. King's life and work are undeserving of high praise and recognition. Heavens, no.

I cannot find an exact figure, but mlkmemorial.org gives a ballpark cost of $114,000,000 for the design and construction of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. That's $114,000,000 that could have gone to any number of social programs and worthy causes.

If you haven't yet taken the detour and read/listened to Dr. King's address (and you really should), here is a particularly meaty excerpt (emphases mine):


It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken: the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.


Do you suppose the man who spoke these words would really want the nation to spend $114,000,000 building a statue of him when we could very easily find fifty-seven severely underfunded school districts that could each benefit from a $2,000,000 grant?

Dr. King's preference, were he still capable of choosing, should be blazingly obvious. This fact isn't lost on even executive architect Ed Jackson, who admitted as much during an NPR interview (emphases mine, once again):


Dr. King probably would not have wanted to have a monument to himself at all. But we're not building this for Dr. King. We're building this in honor of his legacy such that his legacy doesn't die with him. And so we're building this to inspire others to follow in his footsteps. And in doing so, you have to do it in such a compelling way that people are emotionally moved by what they experience on this memorial setting that we have created.


I disagree.

Washington, DC has enough god damn memorials already. And now there's another one. One more ten-minute stop on the already-crowded itinerary of next year's fourth grade field trip. Another statue to drag your bored and whining nephew along on the way to the Vietnam Memorial from the Lincoln Memorial.

This is supposed to be the Information Age, damn it. A statue has nothing to teach us.

If we were really serious about honoring and preserving Dr. King's Legacy -- and not simply paying him lip service -- we would have kept the statue unbuilt and invested the $120,000,000 in public education, ensuring that the next generations be sufficiently well-read and informed to understand Dr. King's accomplishments and ideals. In such a future, no statue would be necessary. The reasons for which the nation honors the man would be self-evident, and need no gaudy stone tourist attractions to stroke the public's attention.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Dirty Tricks My Teacher Played

I must once again apologize for the lack of substantial updates. Two long-term projects have been occupying my time over the last month or so. One is a short story I began writing on a whim. (Do not presume putting together a good short story is easy because it doesn't have to be as long as a novel. I've never really tried writing them because they're unbelievably difficult.) The other is going to be a new site with a new weekly webcomic. That's not gonna go up until I have at least two months of comics locked and loaded, but it is on its way.

In the meantime, I have a story and a fun activity for you.

I've taken a break from pushing forward in my astronomical studies (not that this has prevented me from going out to look for Messier objects or gawk at Jupiter's moons* whenever the sky is clear) to take a few steps back and embark upon a tangential detour.

I have had only one recurring nightmare over the last few years. I am back at my high school building and I have to get to math class. I'm unaware of the subject -- calculus? trigonometry? statistics? -- but it is definitely a full-on math class. Unless I pass this class, I have to say in high school. I am twenty-seven years old, bigger than all the other kids, have no idea what a cosine is, and can only stammer when my employer calls to ask why I haven't come to work in four days.

Fuck this dream. I am going back to face my demons and master all the material that destroyed my grade point average from grades eight through twelve. To this end, I've purchased SAT and GRE prep books, am working my way up from functions, and finding that solving equations can actually be a lot of fun when all the pressure is off. (It tickles the brain the same way a crossword puzzle does.)

While working on a few last evening, I was struck by a recollection of an incident in one of my high school math classes. I guess it must have been first-year algebra** -- I remember the teacher, but I can't say the same for his name. He had a goatish look about him and, if I remember correctly, moonlighted as a Lutheran priest. One afternoon he must have gotten fed up with a student, and chastised the entire class for our inattentiveness. We daydreamed in class too often, made too many careless mistakes in our computations, allowing the five-minute bell to distract us from learning the methods for solving the most difficult problems of a given section, and so on. Honestly, I don't recall most of what he said. I wasn't really paying attention.

And so he warned us of a "surprise" quiz coming up in the next week. Unless each of us got his act together and paid close attention to the material, we would fail for certain.

Naturally, I spent the week drawing pictures in class and playing video games at home.

The quiz consisted of three questions. I got a zero.

Being an obsessive-compulsive packrat, I've held on to pretty much every notebook I used for anything since 1998, and actually dug up the portfolio I carried around for this class. I've reproduced the problems on the quiz I bombed and am reproducing them here. It's only algebra I, so this shouldn't be much of a challenge. Please, take a stab at it!


It's basic stuff, but you can see how well it's built to screw someone with my shoddy study habits.


* When Jupiter began appearing in the night sky again, I discovered my fancy binoculars could resolve the Galilean satellites. I wish I could articulate how fucking cool I think this is.

** Fun fact: the English term "algebra" comes from the medieval Arabic al-jabr, which means something like "reunification." The Persian mathematician Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi uses the term in his treatise Kitab al-Jabr w'al-Muqabala ("Rules of Reintegration and Reduction"), which details methods of solving equations with unknown quantities. This is only one lexical legacy of the golden age of Arabic/Persian science -- familiar astronomical names and terms such as "zenith," "nadir," "Vega," "Rigel," "Fomalhaut," etc., are others.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Late August grab bag: Orion, Ramadan, poetry.

(Image stolen from Astro Bob.)


The other night I received this text message from my friend James:

August 23, 2001, 4:00 a.m.: Orion can be seen low on the horizon, and all is right with the universe. The plump crescent Moon is higher in the sky, Ramadan will be over soon.

I suspect James wished to challenge my assertion that Orion is a winter constellation -- which it is, although it first begins to appear on the horizon toward the beginning of September. He also probably spoke to our shared casual interest in Islam -- fostered in him by his political science background (coupled with the decades of American entanglement in Middle East) and in me by my dabbling in medieval Arabic literature and science; and in both of us by our mutual friend Nickie, a Muslim convert.

Indeed it is Ramadan, though not for much longer.

This seems as good a time as any to share a piece I copied from an issue of Poetry magazine a few years back. It got mixed up in all my papers, and unexpectedly turned up the other day while I was doing some housekeeping.

So! In honor of Ramadan's conclusion (and so I can finally discard the crinkled and folded hard copy), here is a piece by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwin for your reading pleasure.


To a Young Poet
by Mahmoud Darwish (1941 – 2008)
Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah

Don't believe our outlines, forget them,
and begin from your own words.
As if you are the first two write poetry
or the last poet.

If you read our work, let it not be an extension of our affairs,
but to correct our errs
in the book of agony.

Don't ask anyone: Who am I?
You know who your mother is.
As for your father, be your own.

Truth is white, write over it
with a crow's ink.
Truth is black, write over it
with a mirage's light.

If you want to duel with a falcon
soar with the falcon.

If you fall in love with a woman,
be the one, not she,
who desires his end.

Life is less alive than we think but we don't think
of the matter too much lest we hurt emotions' health.

If you ponder a rose for too long
you won't budge in a storm.

You are like me, but my abyss is clear.
And you have roads whose secrets never end.
They descend and ascend, descend and ascend.

You might call the end of youth
the maturity of talent
or wisdom. No doubt, it is wisdom,
the wisdom of a cool non-lyric.

One thousand birds in the hand
don't equal one bird that wears a tree.

A poem is a difficult time
is beautiful flowers in a cemetery.

Example is not easy to attain
so be yourself and other than yourself
behind the borders of echo.

Ardor has an expiration date with extended range.
So fill up with fervor for your heart's sake,
follow it before you reach your path,

Don't tell the beloved, you are I
and I am you, say
the opposite of that: we are two guests
of an excess, fugitive cloud.

Deviate, with all your might, deviate from the rule.

Don't place two stars in one utterance
and place the marginal next to the essential
to complete the rising rapture.

Don't believe the accuracy of our instructions.
Believe only the caravan's trace.

A moral is as a bullet in its poet's heart
a deadly wisdom.

Be strong as a bull when you're angry
weak as an almond blossom
when you love, and nothing, nothing
when you serenade yourself in a closed room.

The road is long like an ancient poet's night:
plains and hills, rivers and valleys.
Walk according to your dream's measure: either a lily
follows you or the gallows.

Your tasks are not what worry me about you.
I worry about you from those who dance
over their children's graves,
and from the hidden cameras
in the singers' navels.

You won't disappoint me,
if you distance yourself from others, and from me.
What doesn't resemble me is more beautiful.

From now on, your only guardian is your neglected future.

Don't think, when you melt in sorrow
like candle tears, of who will see you
or follow your intuition's light.
Think of yourself: is this all of myself?

The poem is always incomplete, the butterflies make it whole.

No advice in love. It's experience.
No advice in poetry. It's talent.

And last but not least, Salaam.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A.E. in the Hous(e, )man

(Image ganked from the WeatherUnderground index of one dcswa.)


I haven't seen any fireflies lately. The skunk cabbage leaves have melted and shrunk back down into the mud, and the ferns begin to brown and curl. Today's relatively cool weather kept the cicadas quiet, and nearly a month has elapsed since the katydids commenced noising up the night.

I've noticed my friend Dave keeping an intent ear turned toward the latter.

A few nights ago, Dave and I shared a smoke on a back porch during the sunset and listened as the crickets and katydids roused themselves with a noticeable languor. Dave shook his head.

"Won't be long now," he said.

Understanding his meaning, I gave a nod.

Dave sighed. "Soon...soon everything is going to suck."

One downside to tuning in closely to the natural seasons and their permutations is that your sensitivity to their variations heightens -- and consequently, so does the susceptibility of your mental state and mood to seasonal affective swings.

I've only recently become more attuned to the particulars of the seasonal cycles, and as the result of a deliberate effort. Dave, on the other hand, can blame his own reptilian physiology. He requires steaming hot sunshine to thrive. His anxiety about the end of summer first began to mount when the days stopped getting longer in late June. Winter comes just a little closer to killing him every year.

I have a certain fondness and reverence for winter, but I absolutely do not prefer it. Heavens, no. Winter in the northeast is a bitch. Urging your out of bed in the morning is already plenty difficult when the simple act of availing yourself of the blanket doesn't bring pronounced physical discomfort. (My sleeping quarters are very poorly insulated.) Watching the sun set around 5:00 p.m. tends to make the day seem as through it's ended before even getting the opportunity to properly begin; and two solid months of such days and such thoughts tends to mire you in moods of futility and weariness. Immediately after you get sick of looking at the gray grass and bare trees, you're sick of looking at the snow instead. Also, I hate Christmas -- but that's another topic in itself.

But ultimately, having a lot to complain about is nothing to complain about. It's a fine and useful thing! With inexorable external forces imposing periods of desolation, deprivation, and dysthymia, you become accustomed to these things and develop a tolerance for them. When loss and sorrow find you in a sunnier clime, you're better equipped to cope with them. You're from the joy-forsaken northeast, dammit. You know sorrow and loss. They haunt your brief days and long nights five months for every year. Where you see an interruption, the perennial sunbathers see a catastrophe.

I proposed this thought to Dave, who laughed it off and informed me of his plan to escape to a friend's house in Florida for two weeks out of February. At that moment I experienced a remote sense of déjà vu -- and thought back, to all times and places, to the poetry course Dave and I took together in our university days. To a particular poem we both had to read for an early semester assignment...

That poem was "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff" by renowned British lyricist A.E. Housman. The topics of Housman's poem and our conversation that evening share fewer points of contact than I fancied, but the reason it suddenly sprung to mind will be obvious momentarily. (Actually, the piece's message has more direct congruences with some musings posted on this "web-log" back in February.)

I really wish I didn't have to say this, but the incoming poem is a quick and easy read and well worth the two minutes it will take to read. It needs to be read out loud -- and I should also mention, should it need mentioning, that when reading a poem like this you do not pause at the ends of lines, but only where the punctuation dictates.

And without further ado...!


Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff
By A.E. Housman (1859 - 1936)

'Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can't be much amiss, 'tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, 'tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship 'tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.'

 Why, if 'tis dancing you would be,
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

 Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul's stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

 There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

So Long, Secret Six (part two)


Picking up from where we left off last time, here's the second half of prime cuts from the recently-canceled Secret Six comic book series. (We'll get back to the headier math/science/literature stuff soon, I swear.) 

10.) The Six Vs. The Society

Long story short: during Villains United (written/released as a component the Countdown to Infinite Crisis crossover pile event), a core group of major DC villains is consolidating virtually every single costumed badguy on the planet into a single organization. A figure named Mockingbird blackmails a crew of six rogue villains into running covert operations against the Society.

In the second issue of Villains United, the Secret Six is ambushed by an arm of the Society in a lovely two page splash that establishes two prevalent recurring motifs we see throughout the series:

(1) Gangs of obscure (and often silly) DC villains throwing down with other obscure (and often silly) DC villains.

(2) The Secret Six finding themselves outnumbered, overpowered, and totally screwed.

Click the image to see a larger version. It's too pretty to be shrunk down or cropped to a 400-pixel width.

9.) Bane Meets Liana

Bane takes his self-assumed role as Scandal's adopted father very seriously. But this is hardly unusual; Bane takes everything very seriously.

Sometime after the death of her teammate/girlfriend Knockout, Scandal begins dating a very nice stripper named Liana (who looks just enough like Knockout to make you wonder if Simone ever had some sort of Jean Grey/Madelyne Pryor plan in mind). During her first vist to the Six's abode, Liana is received at the door by Bane.

Remember that time when you took your high school crush out on a date? Remember when her father came down to size you up and have a few words with you in confidence while your date was still upstairs getting ready?

Imagine how much more frightening and awkward this would be if your date's father was the guy who put Batman in a wheelchair.

Scandal comes downstairs and bails out a very relieved Liana just as Bane presents her with a pen and pad and asks that she make a list of all her previous sexual partners and any known diseases.

Later on, Liana warms up to Bane and sets him up with one of her coworkers. We're treated to scenes of The Man Who Broke the Bat wearing street clothes and taking a peppy young woman to the county fair, and (with a single particularly glaring exception) Simone keeps Bane completely true to character. (This is what is known as "development." Geoff Johns should remember to try it more often.)

8.) Scandal's upbringing

By the time the number of issues in the regular series hits the double digits, we begin to suspect that Scandal might be the only member on the team who's at all okay.Catman likes to get buck naked and hang out with lions on the African savanna for months on end. Bane is a drug addict with a dangerously obsessive personality. Deadshot is a borderline sociopath who shoots people. Jeanette gets turned on when Deadshot shoots people. Ragdoll is Ragdoll. Compared with the outright lunacy of her teammates, Scandal's daddy issues seem pretty tame.

We might think this before we get our one flashback to her childhood. On her ninth birthday, her father brings Scandal outside and threatens to have her mother killed unless she performs a task for him:

Scandal gets beaten by men with sticks for a few minutes. Vandal calls off his goons and presents his daughter with a gift and some fatherly guidance.


7.) "How'm I gonna watch Avatar now?"

I can't deny being a DC Comics geek, but I'm not nearly enough of one to have read anything about King Shark prior to his appearances in the Secret Six volumes. As far as I can tell, he was introduced as a major villain in the first issue of the 1990s Superboy series, and was intended to be:

A. The son of a Hawaiian shark god
B. A major threat
C. Taken seriously

When he begins appearing in Secret Six, he is not taken seriously. He gets stomped by Solomon Grundy. Jeanette beats him up. Ragdoll gouges his eye out.

Simone reinvents King Shark by focusing exclusively on a single aspect of his character: his sharkness. King Shark is a shark. He loves being a shark. In fact, he's so happy about being a shark that nothing ever puts him in a bad mood.

One of the worst things about the timing of Secret Six's cancellation is that we only get two (very small) story-arcs featuring King Shark as an official member of the team. Drag.

6.) The Secret Six Vs. Wonder Woman

The Secret Six is tough, but still pretty low-caliber on the DCU power scale. When an angry Wonder Woman shows up to pick a fight, the team just stands there. They already know they're beaten.

Deadshot tries shooting her, just for the hell of it. Wonder Woman does that bullet-deflecting thing with her bracelets and floors him. Jeanette, the one member of the team with super-strength, tries her luck as well. She does better than Deadshot, but that's not saying much.

Meanwhile, the male members of the team stand at a relatively safe distance and gawk at the catfight in which none of them are even remotely equipped to participate.

(For the record, Batman has never directly beaten Wonder Woman one-on-one, but his plan for dealing with her worked pretty damn well. See: Tower of Babel.)

5.) "This is fucked up, right?"

The bromance between Catman and Deadshot is a lot of fun to read. The reasons why they get along are surprisingly complex, but in a nutshell: Deadshot, the self-loathing assassin, likes having a buddy who still possesses some shred of decency; Catman, who would like to be one of the heroes but is too much of a villain, can relate to Deadshot's killer instinct.

What makes their friendship especially cute is their mutual reluctance to admit how much they enjoy each other's company. Catman sometimes shows it, but Deadshot usually just makes fun of Catman and threatens to shoot him.

There's a very nicely-done moment in the Cats in the Cradle arc when the team arrives on the scene after Catman has taken out the first of the thugs responsible for kidnapping Thomas Blake, Jr.

Deadshot is so shocked that he accidentally slips up and refers to Catman by the affectionate diminutive of his first name -- but then quickly remembers himself in front of his teammates and quickly (and conspicuously) corrects himself. Aww.


4.) The Mad Hatter Vs. The Doom Patrol

Whether because of an editorial mandate or Simone's caprices, the Secret Six squares off against the Doom Patrol (another superhero/superfreak team) in the Six Degrees of Devestation miniseries. I'm a bit more inclined to suspect the hand of the editors, since the meeting between the teams seems a tad shoehorned into the story. But it's not a total waste of time, as it gives the Six's newest member -- Gotham City's own Mad Hatter -- a chance to show his stuff. So far, the Hatter has done nothing but waddle around like a homeless midget and spout Lewis Carroll quotes. He's a late arrival to the fight, but singlehandedly turns the tide by using his Jedi mind tricks to convince the Doom Patrol to kick their own asses.

Did you know the Hatter could do this? I thought he could only control people when they were wearing his hats, but whatever. This is neat too.

3.) "Don't ever fuck with The Wall."

While the two opposing Secret Six teams are trying to kill each other in Skataris, their respective government handlers duke it out in Washington. Katarina Armstrong (a.k.a. Spy Smasher), who controls Bane's team, challenges Amanda Waller (who controls Scandal's team) for her unspoken title of Government Spook Queen.

Armstrong apparently psyches out The Wall and sends her off on a phony trail, then coerces a federal agent into planting bogus evidence implicating Waller of treason in the Pentagon's computer system. Waller suddenly materializes in Armstrong's office, shoots her accomplice in the head, and offers Armstrong some advice.

Man. No wonder Deadshot's scared of her.

2.) The Parademon's Sacrifice

During the team's earliest days as a blackmailed sextet of anti-Society kamikazes, one of its original members was a Parademon. For any non-geeks in attendance, a Parademon is a grunt trooper from the planet Apokolips. 99.9% percent of the time, Parademons don't get to talk, have names, or do much of anything but get their asses stomped by Superman. Having a nameless Parademon appear on a DC superteam is about as strange a thing as a character called "Stormtrooper" playing a major role in some Star Wars Expanded Universe story about the New Sith (or whatever).

The Parademon and Ragdoll shared a special (and very strange) relationship. The Parademon, having been born into slavery on a hellish planet where there's no such thing as laughter, mistakenly takes Ragdoll to be a clown an treats him with the deep, obsequious respect he believes is due to a brilliant artist. Though Ragdoll keeps insisting he isn't a clown, he enjoys the Parademon's company because he doesn't notice or care what a depraved weirdo he is.

During the Six's hopeless final stand against the Society, the Parademon blows himself up to give Ragdoll a (very small) chance at escaping.

Minutes later, Vandal Savage intervenes to have the strike against the Six called off. The Parademon's sacrifice buys the team just enough time to save themselves from getting slaughtered. A grateful Ragdoll kneels beside the dying Parademon.

What a strange and moving comic book moment.

Afterwards, Ragdoll has Parademon's body stuffed and placed in his bedroom. On repeated occasions he refers to it as his best friend and regularly carries out conversations with it. (Very strange, but not quite so moving. Dammit, Ragdoll.)

1.) Bane Vs. Junior

I changed my mind on this one, but let me tell you about my original choice.

Like that of any one-hit wonder, Bane's career as a supervillain is defined by only one thing: he's the guy who beat Batman (once).

That's a hard act to top. In the years following the Knightfall arc, Bane hasn't done much. He's already beaten Batman, so that's off the table. Every other big name superhero he could fight has superpowers; Bane might be smart as Batman and twice as strong, but he wouldn't stand a chance against Superman or the Flash. Usually, he just pops up out of nowhere to break some D-list hero or villain over his knee and blurt out some idiotic one-liner like "I AM BANE. I BREAK PEOPLE." It always fails to impress, and that's probably why DC's editors said "sure, why not?" when Simone asked if she could draft Bane into the Secret Six.

Simone is a smarter and better writer than most of the comic book hacks who have passed Bane back and forth in the years since Knightfall, and realizes that the "Bane is really strong and he beat Batman once" shtick had worn thin ages ago. Thus, the character's finest moment in Secret Six occurs when he's at the mercy of someone else's brutality.

First, a comic book history lesson. In the Knightfall storyline, Bane breaks open Arkham Asylum and arms the inmates. All of a sudden, just about every costumed criminal Batman has ever put away is on the loose and packing heat. Batman runs himself ragged trying to chase them all down and bring them back in. Over the next few weeks, Bane lurks in the background and keeps track of Batman -- observing his movements, watching him fight, learning how he thinks, and deducing his secret identity as Bruce Wayne. At the end of the storyline, Bane confronts an exhausted Batman in his own home, and cripples him after a short and very one-sided fight. It's really the only time that Batman has completely and indisputably lost to one of his enemies.

Knightfall isn't so much about Batman's defeat as about his heroism and superhuman force of will. By pushing Batman to his absolute limit, Bane demonstrates just how far Batman's limits actually are. Bane has to systematically take Batman apart because that's really the only way Batman can be defeated -- and it takes a long time. When Bane appears in the Batcave juiced up on the Venom steroid and ready to fight, Batman hasn't slept in days, has at least a few broken bones, and is probably bleeding internally -- and he still hurls himself at Bane, even though he's barely capable of even throwing a punch. Bane tenderizes him a while, then gets him in a hold and shout something like, "beg for mercy! Scream my name!"

"Go back to hell," says Batman, and passes out. Next comes that immortal splash page.

So: Bane wipes the floor with Batman, but in the process, he shows how much of a bad ass Batman really is.

In Secret Six, Bane demonstrates the profundity of his own mettle by standing on the receiving end of a pile of bricks and a monstrous crime boss with a mean throwing arm.

Junior gets the jump on Bane, subdues him, and drags him to an empty construction site. The rest of the Six have escaped, and they have Junior's "Get Out of Hell Free" card and the woman who stole it with them.

Bane says nothing. Like Batman, he refuses to be beaten, even when completely helpless against his foe.

That was what I was going to name as Secret Six's best moment -- but then I wondered if I mightn't be overthinking it.

1.) Bane Rides a Dinosaur

Yeah, that's right. On the cover of issue #27, Bane rides a fucking Tyrannosaurus. Is an explanation even necessary?

Truly, this is what comic books are all about.

Godspeed, Secret Six.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

So long, Secret Six (part one)


Earlier this month, issue #36 of Gail Simone's Secret Six hit the shelves, bringing the comic serial to its undeserved conclusion. Since it's August and I still have some time left before the S.A.D. drives me to write nothing but morose existential tracts for a good five months, what say we follow my airy mood where it will and discuss comic books for a few minutes, hm?

The Secret Six began in the pages of Villains United, a companion book to the Infinite Crisis clusterfuck event of 2005. In 2006 it appeared in its own miniseries, and finally got a monthly book in 2008. I began following it in 2009, and since then it has been the only comic book serial I've made a point of picking up on an issue-by-issue basis instead of waiting to check out the trade paperbacks. I'm sad to see it go, but as I've said before, part of being excellent is knowing when (or being compelled) to quit while you're ahead.
The quickest way of explaining Secret Six would be to describe it as the spiritual successor to John Ostrander's Suicide Squad series (1987-1992). Rather than following the adventures of a team of do-gooders in tights, Secret Six is about a group of costumed villains drafted into running missions against even worse villains.

In its more profitable days, DC Comics released new serials on a fairly regular basis. After the Gold and Silver Ages of comic books, when readership began dwindling somewhat, the executives were often reluctant to take a chance on giving a monthly book to some brand new character nobody had ever heard of. More often than not, the heroes to get their own books were the co-stars of established characters -- like Nightwing, for example. When Nightwing spun-off into his own book, the writers had to devise a new group of villains for him to square off against. When the book folded, Nightwing got reabsorbed into the pages of Batman and Detective Comics to trade blows with the Joker and Penguin again, while all of his villains ended up in comic book limbo. All of them were still technically out there somewhere, but certainly not active in the pages of any DC books. This has happened any number of times: for every regularly-appearing Lex Luthor, Joker, or Sinestro, there's about a dozen small-time supervillains sitting around gathering dust in the intellectual property vaults of DC Comics.

These are the villains with which Secret Six is concerned -- the B and C-list badguys who never made it into the spotlight. As such, its pages depict a darker, danker, and scuzzier (not to mention much funnier) realm of the DC Universe than the other monthlies. (It also means that Simone has much more freedom to do whatever she pleases with the characters, since none of the other writers/editors at DC have any interest in using them for anything.) The premise is simple: after being brought together in the pages of Villains United, the Secret Six works as a sort of supervillain A Team, doing unscrupulous jobs for any corrupt moguls, rogue governments, evil megalomaniacs, or rich men with grudges willing to commission them. The missions never go smoothly. The Six are always outnumbered, outgunned, and frequently coming within a hair's width of turning on and killing each other before managing to eke out some semblance of a victory and escaping with their lives.

For anyone already familiar with the series, this has been much more exposition than you wanted. For any comic book fans who have not had the pleasure of reading it, it would be much more fruitful to do yourself a favor and pick up the collected volumes instead of absorbing more of my verbiage.

In the meantime, let's see Secret Six off properly with a stroll down memory lane in the form of another quick n' easy TOP (n) LIST. Spoilers are to be expected, but the series has far too many twists for one blog to give away; I doubt anything you learn here would detract from your enjoyment of reading the series properly.

THE 20 BEST MOMENTS IN SECRET SIX

20.) Mr. Savage Admonishes the Help

For most of the team's lifespan, the Secret Six is lead by Scandal Savage, daughter of Vandal Savage, the DCU's most famous immortal warlord/psychopath. When Vandal decides he wants his daughter back under his thumb, she briefly feigns submission and surrenders herself at his Kyoto retreat. In the middle of dinner, Scandal kills everyone in the room, pins her father to the wall with a pair of katana blades, and makes a break for it. Vandal is more annoyed about this than anything, and particularly with his underlings.


Takasaki then apologizes for being able to carry out his final order(s) and drops dead. Vandal fetches his own damn kimono.

19.) "WHO DIES ALL LIT UP LIKE CHRISTMAS?"

In the "Unhinged" storyline (the first arc of the regular series), a deranged monster of a mob boss named Junior gets robbed of his most valuable possession: a bona fide "get out of Hell free" card forged by the demon Neron. The card ends up in the possession of the Secret Six, and Junior offers a multimillion dollar bounty to anyone who can kill the Six and get it back. A small army of career supervillains takes up Junior's offer, but only because they want the card for themselves. Electro rip-off Bolt has a particularly colorful way of asking for it:



18.) Meet Ragdoll

From the very beginning, one of the Six's core members is Peter Merkel Jr., a.k.a. Ragdoll -- a contortionist with artificial joints, a surgery addiction, and a diseased mind. When Nicola Scott did the penciling work for the first two arcs of the regular series, Ragdoll's hideous appearance became a lot more cuddly, and his personality seems to have shifted a little to accompany his new baby face.


17.) "I wonder what it's like to fuck a butterfly?"

When Jim Calafiore took over pencils from Nicola Scott after issue #14, Ragdoll's appearance reverted from cute to creepy. His personality seems to follow suit:


16.) "The firm but loving hand of a father."

At the beginning of the regular series, Bane joins the team. That's right --- the Man Who Broke the Bat himself. Of course, after about a decade of doing nothing but reminding people about how he beat Batman (and getting passed back and forth by writers who had no idea what to do with him), Bane is the supervillain equivalent of Vanilla Ice by the time he ends up in the Six.

Simone reinvents Bane by humanizing him: when he joins the team, we see him trying to kick his addiction to Venom, forget about Batman, and get on with his life. Despite being the sort of person who'd rip off a guy's arm and beat him to death with it, Bane does have a sensitive side, which Simone explores by giving him a love interest in the form of Scandal Savage. Bane, however, is no less of a damaged freak than the rest of the Six, and isn't exactly interested in Scandal as a consort:


15.) Catman vs. Loki

Semi-reformed Batman foe Thomas Blake, a.k.a. Catman, is the closest thing on the Secret Six to a "hero." He's not sufficiently blackhearted, psychotic, or avaricious enough to be labeled a villain, but he's too far outside the law and too violent to be a goodguy. For most of the team's existence, we watch Catman trying to grapple with the stress of being a moral gray area on a planet where just about everyone is either on Superman's team or working with the Legion of Doom.

In the "Cats in the Cradle" arc, a group of very effective hired goons kidnaps Catman's illegitimate son. Catman does not take this well and finally snaps, leaving the group to hunt down and kill the kidnappers, one by one.

The second man on his hit list is an Afrikaner giant calling himself Loki. When he catches word that Catman is on his trail, Loki spends two pages giving a grandiose monologue about the the epic gladiatorial duel between man-lions he expects to occur.

But Catman isn't in the mood for chivalry, and defies Loki's expectations in a spectacularly violent sequence of which the Comics Code Authority would have never approved.


(Not pictured: Catman beating Loki with a tire iron and ripping out his spine.)

Hmmm. In the interest of expediency, perhaps we should get the "Deadshot shoots someone" moments out of the way all at once...

14.) Deadshot Shoots Giuana


In the "Depths" arc, the Six get strong-armed into the employ of a Mr. Smyth, who is such a vile bastard that even a team of costumed badguy mercenaries find themselves at a moral crossroads. Scandal, Jeanette, and Bane defect and try to escape, whereupon Catman, Deadshot, and Ragdoll are ordered to hunt down and kill them.

Catman and Ragdoll end up switching sides as well, but Deadshot holds out for much longer. As a career assassin, he takes his professional reputation much too seriously to shirk his responsibility to an employer. It isn't until Jeanette and Catman are about to be sliced to pieces by Smyth's amazon enforcer Giuana that Deadshot's heart finally grows three sizes:


I had to crop the image a bit, but believe me when I say that I have never seen a better-framed headshot in any comic book.



13.) Deadshot Shoots Yasemin Soze

Tired of constantly being compared to him by her teammates, Deadshot's replacement on the Suicide Squad wants to see which of them is the better killer and challenges him to a duel. You can guess how well that goes.



Deadshot's parting advice to her: "Take the shot you got, lady."

Cold, man.


12.) Deadshot Shoots Amanda Waller

Amanda "The Wall" Waller is the head of Task Force X (nicknamed the Suicide Squad), Deadshot's former boss, and reigning queen of government spooks. After her bid to draft Deadshot back into the Squad and shut down the Six backfires (due to some Black Lantern-related interference), Waller decides to call it a night.

"You coming, Lawton?" she asks. "Back where you belong?"

"About that," says Deadshot.


So
cold.

(Of course, it doesn't make that much of a difference: unbeknownst to Deadshot and the rest of the Six, Waller has already been pulling their strings from a distance for some time. She's just that good.)

11.) "Small world, huh?"

At one point, the Six breaks up into a pair of independent opposing teams. The first group's lineup consists of Scandal, Catman, Deadshot, Ragdoll, Black Alice, and the government agent Tremor. The rogue second team is made up of Bane, Jeanette, King Shark, Lady Vic, Giganta, and Dwarfstar.

Giganta and Dwarfstar are both closely linked to Ryan Choi, an incarnation of the Atom Simone created in 2006. Giganta shares an on-again off-again relationship with Choi, while Dwarfstar is the Venom to his Spider-man.

Around the same time Dwarfstar and Giganta joined Bane's team, Deathstroke the Terminator and his own team of supervillains for hire got their own lackluster rip-off book (that Gail wasn't writing and had no say in) off in another corner of the DC Universe. To get the book some hype and boost Deathstroke's badguy cred, their first mission has them murdering Ryan Choi on Dwarfstar's tab. Simone was reportedly annoyed about this, but had no choice but to run with it.

So: Ryan Choi is dead. Giganta doesn't know about this, and she certainly has no idea that one of her new teammates paid to make it happen.


Fucking COLD.

Well, I think that's enough for tonight. Check back later in the week for part two.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Polly the Chemist Vs. Polly the Polly

I particularly enjoy how Final Fantasy Tactics allows you to draft hired goons into your army and give them whatever names you please. You can assemble an entire crew named after you and your friends, and then play the whole game pretending you're all going on fantastic adventures together and that everyone not only listens to you, but indeed follows your every command.

It is also useful for acting out passive-aggressive dominance fantasies against snarky webmistresses.


(5:56:05 PM) Pitchyfork: this isn't easy for me to say, polly. (5:56:09 PM) Pitchyfork: but i'm removing you from the team. (5:56:19 PM) ThePolly: What? (5:57:03 PM) Pitchyfork: you don't have the right kind of stuff we need. (5:57:34 PM) ThePolly: Yeah? Well your dumb team doesn't have the right stuff I need. (5:58:06 PM) Pitchyfork: D: (5:58:49 PM) ThePolly: shut up

Sunday, August 7, 2011

ABC of Reading

Over the last month or so I've been digesting Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading. I see no reason why such a thin book should have reasonably taken so long to get through -- perhaps I am of late stretching myself thinner than I've thought.

Odds are that you've either never heard of Ezra Pound or only recognize his name through a tenuous association with a university English curriculum. In both cases, you might be surprised to learn that he's one of the most influential American poets of the 20th century, and still one of the most controversial.

Perhaps one reason his name and work don't register in the reading public's recognition to the same extent as Whitman's, Poe's, or Dickinson's is because he played largely a background role in the Euro-American literary world of the early 20th century: his contributions of original verse, while widely-praised, are outweighed by his work as a translator, critic, and tastemaker. Another might be his setting up a residence in Italy during the 1920s, where he became an outspoken supporter of Benito Mussolini. Obviously, essays and poetry written by an antisemitic fascist aren't much in vogue these days.

ABC of Reading, first published in 1934, was Pound's attempt to improve university literature and poetry courses by offering an alternative textbook outlining parts of his aesthetic and critical theories, presenting metrics by which poetry might be judged, and suggesting in-class reading and writing assignments. (I would be very interested in knowing how many creative writing instructors have included ABC on their class syllabi.) It reads nothing like a typical college text of the 21st century -- it comes across more like a collection of topically-related blog posts compiled and printed as a single volume.

As you might expect from a man with fascist sympathies, Pound is a huge elitist and hard ass. An early section of ABC of Reading might be paraphrased as follows:


• In order to really understand literature, you should be able to read Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German, and Chinese.

• If you are unwilling to put forth this kind of effort, you will never know enough about poetry to truly appreciate it, and this will be your own fault. Asshole.

• My boner for Geoffrey Chaucer is longer than your arm.


Despite the odious conclusions to which certain convictions take him, Pound possesses a brilliant and unusual mind that is well worth engaging with, though you may certainly find yourself disagreeing with several points. (Fortunately, you don't have to fear coming across any beyond-the-pale political discourse in his poetry or lit crit work.) ABC of Reading, because of its highly distilled style, frequently scans like a linear series of poetry-related aphorisms. I've marked some of my favorites and offer them here for your reading pleasure:


We live in an age of science and abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took great pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to 'the needs of society', or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed it the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.

* * *

Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear. It doesn't matter whether the good writer wants to be useful, or whether the bad writer wants to do harm.

* * *

Language is the main means of human communication. If an animal's nervous system does not transmit sensations and stimuli, the animal atrophies.

If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.

* * *

Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.

Dichten = condensare.

I begin with poetry because it is the most concentrated form of verbal expression. Basil Bunting, fumbling about with a German-Italian dictionary, found that this idea of poetry as concentration is as old almost as the German language. 'Dichten' is the German verb corresponding to the noun 'Dichtung' meaning poetry, and the lexicographer has rendered it by the Italian word meaning 'to condense.'

* * *

When you start searching for 'pure elements' in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

1 Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.

2 The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.

3 The diluters. Men who came after the first who kinds of writer, and couldn't do the job quite as well.

4 Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of any given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is 'healthy.' For example, men who wrote sonnets in Dante's time, men who wrote short lyrics in Shakespeare's time or for several decades thereafter, or who wrote French novels and stories after Flaubert had shown them how.

5 Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn't really invent anything but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn't be considered as 'great men' or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.

6 The starters of crazes.

Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able 'to see the wood for the trees'. He may know what he 'likes'. He may be a 'compleat book-lover', with a large library of beautifully printed books, bound in the most luxurious bindings, but he will never be able to sort out what he knows or estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is 'breaking with convention' than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.

He will never understand why a specialist is annoyed with him for trotting out a second- or third-hand opinion about the merits of his favorite bad writer.


Until you have made your own survey and your own closer inspection you might at least beware and avoid accepting opinions:

1 From men who haven't themselves produced notable work.

2 From men who have not themselves taken the risk of printing the results of their own personal inspection and survey, even if if they are seriously making one.

* * *

Rodolfo Agricola in an edition dating from fifteen hundred and something says one writes: ut doceat, ut moveat, ut delectet, to teach, to move, or to delight.

* * *

The first phase of anyone's writing always shows them doing something 'like' something they have heard or read.

The majority of writers never pass that stage.

* * *

Our definition of beauty is: aptness to purpose.

* * *

PERCEPTION

'Artists are the antennae of the race.'

Can you be interested in the writings of men whose general perceptions are below the average?

I am afraid that even here the answer is not a straight 'No.'


There is a much more delicate question:


Can you be interested in the work of a man who is blind to 80 per cent of the spectrum? to 30 per cent of the spectrum?

Here the answer is, curiously enough, yes IF . . . if his perceptions are hypernormal in any part of the spectrum he can be of very great use as a writer————
though perhaps not of very great 'weight'. This is where the so-called crack-brained genius comes in. The concept of genius as akin to madness has been carefully fostered by the inferiority complex of the public.


A graver issue needs biological analogy: artists are the antennae; an animal that neglects the warnings of its perceptions needs very great powers of resistance if it is to survive.

Your finer senses are protected, the eye by bone socket, etc.

A nation which neglects the perceptions of its artists declines. After a while it ceases to act, and merely survives.

There is probably no use in telling people who can't see it without being told.


Artists and poets undoubtedly get excited and 'over-excited' about things long before the general public.

Before deciding whether a man is a fool or a good artist, it would be well to ask, not only: 'is he exited unduly', but: 'does he see something we don't?'

Is his curious behavior due to his feeling an oncoming earthquake, or smelling a forest fire which we do not yet feel or smell?


Barometers, wind-gauges, cannot be used as engines.

* * *

No teacher has ever failed from ignorance.

That is empiric professional knowledge.

Teachers fail because they cannot 'handle the class'.

Real education must ultimately be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.

* * *

The secret of popular writing is never to put more on a given page than the common reader can lap off it with no strain WHATSOEVER on his habitually slack attention.

* * *

There is no reason why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and thirty-eight.

* * *

Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.

* * *

A great deal of critical rancour has been wasted through a failure to distinguish between two totally different kinds of writing.

A Books a man reads to develop his capacities: in order to know more and perceive more, and more quickly, than he did before he read them.

and

B Books that are intended and that serve as REPOSE, dope, opiates, mental beds.

You don't sleep on a hammer or a lawn-mower, you don't drive nails with a mattress. Why should people go on applying the SAME critical standards to writings as different in purpose and effect as a lawn-mower and a sofa cushion?

* * *

Jealousy of vigorous living men has perhaps led in all times to a deformation of criticism and a distorted glorification of the past. Motive does not concern us, but error does. Glorifiers of the past most commonly err in their computations because they measure the work of a present DECADE against the best work of a past century or even a group of centuries.

Obviously one man or six men can't produce as many metrical triumphs in five years or in twenty, as five hundred troubadours, with no cinema, no novels, no radio to distract 'em, produced between 1050 and 1300. And the same applies to all departments.

* * *

No good purpose is served merely by falling into an ecstasy over archaic forms of the language.

* * *

[I]n the long run human intelligence is more interesting, and more mysterious than human stupidity, and stays new for longer.