Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How the Man Without Fear Got Here

When Daredevil debuted in April 1964, he represented the last of the first great wave of Marvel superheroes that we readers already knew we couldn’t get enough of,
At age 9, I immediately liked him — even that yellow costume that everybody else seemed to hate (I love that sunny color). I did hope that Matt Murdock would eventually regain his sight, not realizing how integral his disability was to the drama Stan Lee had in mind.
We’d had blind, or rather quasi-blind super-heroes before in the Black Bat and Dr. Mid-Nite. And Daredevil’s Golden Age namesake had been mute.
But with his other senses heightened, Daredevil’s blindness became central to the storyline. It represented another application of a trick Lee liked to pull, using an obstacle as an advantage.
The disability shadowed Daredevil’s relationship with Karen Page, bringing a note of tragic stoicism to the feature. It helped preserve the secret of his identity, because no one would believe Matt Murdock could be a superhero. It provided a satisfying underdog counterpoint to contrast with and underline the heroics Daredevil performed.
Daredevil’s blindness-related super powers, carefully thought out, were dramatically more subtle than the more common wall-smashing variety, but equally effective.
His sensory abilities enabled him to hear distant trouble, overhear secret conversations, dodge and deflect projectiles and punches and, appropriately enough for a moral crusader, detect lies. And they remained a hidden asset, invisible to the public.
In fact, the character was so well conceived that a half-century later he became the protagonist for what is arguably the best superhero show that has ever appeared on television. Daredevil’s Netflix series strikes a perfect balance between the fantastic and the credible without ever losing sight of the adventure and the moral struggle that is central to the superhero genre. The show keeps Daredevil (Charlie Cox) in fairly constant and convincing peril, something that rarely happens in stories where your hero is a superman.
Lee had confidence in Daredevil’s TV potential from the beginning, and in fact Daredevil nearly made it to the tube in 1983.
“We made a deal with Warner Brothers TV and Stirling Silliphant,” Lee told David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview. “Stirling proposed writing a pilot script for Daredevil and went to the ABC network. And they loved the concept.”
In 1971, Silliphant had written another TV show about a blind hero, a private detective named Longstreet starring James Franciscus. But for whatever reason, ABC's ardor for Daredevil cooled.
Daredevil had another run at television in 1989, in the TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. Played by Rex Smith in a ninja-like costume, the superhero was so effectively used that he essentially took over the story. The late Bill Bixby also starred, and directed.
Yet Daredevil was born late, literally. Lee tapped Bill Everett, creator of the Sub-Mariner, to draw the first issue. But Everett got behind on the project, and to fill in Lee had to scramble for a new title.
He called it The Avengers.

The Joads and the Trumps

A passage that reads like Sanskrit to President Trumpolini:

Tom: I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…

Ma: Oh, Tommy, they’d drag you out and cut you down just like they done to Casey.

Tom: They’d drag me anyways. Sooner or later they’d get me for one thing if not for another. Until then…

Ma: Tommy, you’re not aimin’ to kill nobody.

Tom: No, Ma, not that. That ain’t it. It’s just, well as long as I’m an outlaw anyways… maybe I can do somethin’… maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if they ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear, Ma. I can’t. I don’t know enough.

Ma: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?

Tom: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…

Ma: Then what, Tom?

Tom: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

Ma: I don’t understand it, Tom.

Tom: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

When the Avengers Reassembled

I remember being disappointed at the big shake-up in the Avengers line-up in issue 16 (May 1965). How ironic it was, as the comic books used to say, to learn from Stan Lee, decades later, that it was only what readers like me had asked for.
 “(U)sually when those things happen it’s because you want to give the book a shot in the arm as far as sales go,” Stan told David Anthony Kraft’s Comics Interview in 1990. “I may have figured, “Maybe it’s getting a little dull. It’s the same thing all the time. Maybe I’ll see if I can try to stimulate more interest by getting new characters.
“And it may also have been … because I was finding it too difficult to seem to be realistic. For example, in his own book, Thor might have been trapped in Asgard somewhere, and yet in the Avengers book, he’s here attending a meeting.
“I seem to remember, I did get mail from a lot of readers about that point, and I felt, ‘Maybe it’s destroying the pseudo-realism of the stories, where a character is dying in one story and in the other story, he’s chairman of the Avengers meeting.’ I think that had a lot to do with it, as a matter of fact.”
Stan paid serious attention to readers’ wishes, as best he could discern them — one of the secrets of Marvel’s early success. But it was clear to me from the first issue that the Avengers, rather than the Fantastic Four, had been intended as Marvel’s direct answer to the Justice League — a team composed of preexisting superheroes who had their own features. So I was disappointed to see that conception change with the 16th issue. Disney Marvel wisely replicated that pattern with the movies, establishing all the separate franchises before combining them into the spectacularly successful Avengers movie series.
But had I paid more attention, I would have seen the advantages to the new line-up of Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver and his sister, the Scarlet Witch. The team was now well balanced in terms of both powers and drama, with dramatic conflicts built right into the mix.
First, the three new members were former criminals, inherently hard to trust (Hawkeye had fought Iron Man, and the siblings had been Magneto’s pawns against the X-Men).
Quicksilver’s temper was as fast as his speed. And Hawkeye both resented and admired Captain America, and was as eager to replace him as a jealous younger brother might be. Over the years, Clint Barton would evolve, naturally and realistically, into a great friend and admirer of Cap. Cap himself, noble as he was, was on the verge of chucking the whole business and going to work fighting Hydra for Nick Fury.
The lack of the raw power of a Thor, a Hulk or an Iron Man made for potentially more suspenseful fights that necessarily relied on Cap’s experience in strategy. Hawkeye brought his supreme skill and versatile trick arrows to the table, and Quicksilver brought his genuinely impressive super speed.
Odd that the lineup change made the Avengers more closely resemble the JLA, in a way, now with their own “Green Arrow” and “Flash.”
The Scarlet Witch was the weak sister of the bunch, literally, with powers that were irritatingly unpredictable and minor. Early Marvel had a regrettable tendency to saddle women with relatively ineffectual abilities — invisibility, shrinking, mild telekinesis and “sort of maybe making something happen” (the Scarlet Witch’s power). They were super-second-class citizens. All that smashing-through-walls stuff was to be left to the men.
A review of those early issues also shows how, with the spotlight off the more powerful members, the title came to function as a Captain America comic in many ways. Some older fans particularly wanted to see at that time (Stan Lee included, presumably).
And — now without a feature of their and therefore without a continuity conflict — Giant-Man and the Wasp would soon return, revamped and streamlined, to provide fresh interest in the ever-shifting and expanding line-up.
That, too, became an angle that gave the Avengers their own distinct identity, as the super-hero team without a fixed membership. They weren’t a family like the FF or a besieged minority like the X-Men. They were a team of crime-fighting champions united solely by their interest in protecting the planet.
All that, and the glorious art of Wally Wood for a time. Wood was as good at portraying pure stalwart power as Jack Kirby. His superheroes always looked as if they were made of some sort of fluid granite.
I didn’t know what I was missing.

You May Control a Mad Elephant

Given my lifelong fascination with super powers, this quote strikes me forcefully. By the way, we just happen to have a mad elephant on hand that needs taming right now.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

How the Mighty Heroes Are Fallen

In January 1966, the overnight success of the Batman TV program led to a miscalculation in the entertainment industry.
The archly comical ABC show was created to be “camp,” a term defined by Merriam-Webster as “…something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate or out-of-date as to be considered amusing.”
The early TV stories, lifted right from the comic books, didn’t sit so well on actual human beings in tights — even though it was fun to see Adam West address each crazy scheme involving puzzles, umbrellas, Rube Goldberg death traps and brightly colored knockout gas as if it were the imminent detonation of a hydrogen bomb.
A 12-year-old then, I understood that the show was laughing at Batman, not with him. And I didn’t appreciate it one little bit when that same attitude backwashed into superhero comics — not just the Batman comics, but many other bandwagon riders.
Take the revived Archie Comics MLJ superheroes, for example. Subjected to the faux-Stan Lee writing of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and the indifferent art of Paul Reinman, 1940s stalwarts like the Web, the Shield, the Fox, Steel Sterling and the Black Hood became goofballs as the Fly-Man title turned into Mighty Comics in 1966-67.
Only the Web — now a henpecked, middle-aged superhero making a comeback attempt — had the seeds of a real story, touching on themes that would be developed in superhero stories 20 or more years later.
But finally, once all the publicity dust settles, things that are said to be “…so bad they’re good” are usually, after all, just bad.
The Batman show, and the comic book superheroes that copied it, all quickly fell victim to the problem that afflicts every camp melodrama. You can’t generate concern about the fate of characters after you’ve encouraged the audience to laugh at them by making them appear ridiculous. The ticking time bomb can’t be suspenseful when we know it’s really a jack-in-the-box.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

This Looks Like a Job for Tiny Supermen!

It’s a swarm of bees! It’s a cloud of wasps! No, it’s a hundred tiny Supermen!
The Mort Weisinger-edited Silver Age Superman mythos reached its zenith when the Superman Emergency Squad was introduced in 1960.
We’d already seen the arrival of Brainiac, whose shrinking ray gave us the Kryptonian bottled city of Kandor, to be stored in another recent innovation, Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude (shamelessly lifted from Doc Savage).
Krypto the Superdog had arrived even earlier, and Supergirl more recently. Her own expanding mythos would give us Streaky the Supercat and Comet the Superhorse. Lori Lemaris, Superman’s lost collegiate love, was on hand if we happened to need telepathic assistance from a mermaid.
Kandor would in turn be source of further mythic evolution for the Man of Tomorrow. Superman’s increasingly complex and useful robots were also stored there, as was another new element, the Phantom Zone projector.
The tiny city would become the urban bottlescape for Superman and Jimmy’s Batman-and-Robin adventures as Nightwing and Flamebird. And, in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen 48 (Oct.-Nov. 1960), it would give us the Superman Emergency Squad, a silly team I loved.
In this Otto Binder story with art by Curt Swan, we met Superman’s tiny flying army from the Kandor. After shoving their way out of the corked bottled, they swarmed to the rescue dressed in Superman costumes (which would actually make them uniforms, I suppose). Initially someone insisted that they should all look like Superman too, which seems a bit fetishistic even for Silver Age comic books.
They returned in The War Between Supergirl and the Superman Emergency Squad (Action Comics 276, May 1961), a tale penned by Robert Bernstein and drawn by Wayne Boring. The “war” was staged so Superman could gaslight a criminal into thinking himself delusional as a means of shielding Superman’s exposed secret identity.
In the Kennedy era, already having been popularized on TV, radio, movie serials and cartoons and a newspaper comic strip, Superman was featured in seven comic book titles, or eight if you count The Justice League of America, where he was initially downplayed.
But the Man of Tomorrow was central to the titles Action Comics, Superman, Adventure Comics, Superboy, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and World’s Finest. Important additions to the Superman mythos might appear in any one of them — the tiny Supermen in Jimmy Olsen, the Phantom Zone in Adventure, Bizarro in Superboy and Luthor’s sister Lena Thorul in Lois Lane.

The Quest Began on a Coffee Shop Place Mat...

“(A)s we would come to understand much later, our crises each contained the seed of a magnificent gift. We were both forced, by pain, to look under the surface of things. To investigate deeper into the nature of our human-beingness — its impermanence, its lack of continuity, its disappointment…”
“Paula and I sat one evening after class in the coffee shop beneath the yoga studio, discussing our lives. We discovered we both secretly felt our breakdowns were a kind of spiritual crisis. … As we identified, together, the aspects of this search that we shared, I scribbled them down on the paper place mat in front of me with a big red crayon:
“ — A search for ‘the quiet’ in which the small inner voice could be heard.
“ — A longing for the authentic and the real.
“ — A visceral need for self-expression.
“ — A sense of rebellion against the ‘captivity’ of our old lives.
“ — An inchoate sense of something unimaginable about to be born out of the disorganization of our lives.”

—  Stephen Cope, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self

Saturday, January 14, 2017

At the End of the Jungle Trail with B'wana Beast

Within the boom-and-bust cycles of the comic book industry, you can in retrospect spot those moments when the superhero idea has exhausted itself and been played out.
One such milestone was marked by B’wana Beast (Showcase 66-67, Jan.-Feb. 1967).
The superhero fever accelerated by the surprise success of the Batman TV show in January 1966 was already starting to break, but delirium had apparently set in. Ads in the Showcase issues featuring the “Jungle Master” promoted the new feature Dial H for Hero (featuring a superhero who becomes everybody) and Mattel’s Captain Action doll (featuring a superhero who becomes everybody).
And then there was B’wana Beast, a new character concept created by Bob Haney and Mike Sekowsky that had late-night coffee stains and cigarette ashes all over it.
Take Tarzan, slap a gaudy superhero helmet on him and give him the power to telepathically command animals and — to make it all just a little weirder — to COMBINE animals into OTHER, LARGER animals.
Give him a secret hideout on top of Mount Kilimanjaro and a purple gorilla pal, Djuba. Shrug off any uncomfortable feelings you may have about yet another white jungle god, and ignore the fact that “B’wana” is an East African term meaning “master, or boss.”
For good measure, wrap things up with a James Bond clinch in which a beautiful girl moans, “Beast … you beast!”
“B’wana Beast started out as game warden Mike Maxwell, who got stuck in a cave on Mount Kilimanjaro,” comics historian Don Markstein noted. “First, he drank water that had reached the cave by being filtered through rock, which made him suddenly bulk up like Bruce Banner turning into The Hulk, ruining the clothes he’d been wearing. Then his pal Djuba, a gorilla, gave him a helmet that enabled him to order beasts around like The Jaguar, or like The Fly could command insects. He's frequently been compared to Aquaman, who did that with underwater fauna.”
“B’wana Beast was apparently scheduled for the usual three (tryout issues). But reportedly Sekowsky quit after two, citing racism in the concept as his reason for wanting no more to do with it. He suggested another artist be found to continue it, but DC failed to do so.”
But let’s not be too quick to label B’wana Beast as a failure. Sure, he may have vanished from embarrassment, and it took him 20 years to get the nerve to reemerge. But he’s since acquired a more palatable successor, Freedom Beast, and been featured in toys and three animated series.
There’s a comic book Valhalla for even the spectacularly, stylishly bad characters, though not for the forgettable ones. No one’s going to rescue The Maniaks, Binky or Top Gun, the features that debuted in Showcase right after B’wana Beast.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Grade Yourself on This Ethical Test

This is a variation on the theme of a basic ethical test. It’s how you treat the stranger that matters, not how you treat your friends or family or members of your tribe. It’s the Good Samaritan test.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

American Press: How Whores Become Virgins

Remember, the American corporate news media had no problem trumpeting Judith Miller’s Iraq war intelligence lies in the New York Times, or the nonexistent “intelligence chatter” that conveniently raised terrorism alarms whenever Bush and Cheney required some fresh political distraction, or the FBI director’s last-minute email intelligence nonsense about Clinton. But now watch them become gravely circumspect and sagely concerned about the veracity of the intelligence reports in Pissgate.
It is to laugh, my friends.
For the record, if the whorish corporate news media intend to pose as blushing ethical virgins again, I'd just as soon they wait until AFTER Pissgate.

What If Cary Grant Were a Private Eye?

Names like Superman, Batman, Iron Man and Spider-Man may sound silly, but there’s something sillier still.
At least those heroes chose their melodramatic noms de guerre. How much sillier is it when a hero just coincidentally happens to have a melodramatic name that advertises his profession? You know, like Doc Savage, Mike Hammer and Peter Gunn. The name of a later TV private eye, Remington Steele, was conceived as a parody of the name “Peter Gunn.”
Freudian implications aside, Gunn was the polished and poised protagonist in a stylish private eye TV series created by Blake Edwards that aired from 1958 to 1961. He was played by Craig Stevens, an actor who might be better remembered today if his looks, sartorial splendor and savoir faire had not so closely resembled Cary Grant’s.
One cool cat, Pete operated out of a jazz club called Mother’s in some waterfront city. His girl — the equally obviously named Edie Hart — was the lead singer at the club. Her smooth elegance mirrored Gunn’s, only slightly smudged at moments by hints of her frustration at Gunn’s matrimonial elusiveness.
Gunn was cool enough to make it into a comic book, Dell’s Four Color 1087 (April-June 1960), giving artist Mike Sekowsky a rest from the superhero-packed panels of DC’s Justice League of America. Sekowsky got a chance to show what he might have done with a realistically illustrated Rip Kirby-style newspaper strip.
The television series is remembered today largely for the permanent link it forged between action-adventure and jazz, thanks to composer Henry Mancini, who filled the episodes with original music. His Peter Gunn Theme remains iconic, and was the direct ancestor of The James Bond Theme. David Anthony Kraft and I had the privilege of seeing Mancini’s orchestra perform the piece at a university concert in 1973.
Few people know, however, that the famous theme has lyrics. Here they are, in part (and they sound like Edie Hart being heartfelt):

Every night your line is busy
All that buzzin’ makes me dizzy
Couldn’t count on all my fingers
All the dates you had with swingers
Bye bye
Bye, baby
I'm gonna kiss you goodbye
And walk right through that doorway
So long
I'm leaving
This is the last time we’ll meet
On the street going your way…

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Steve Hagen on the Dilemma of Desire

“Our senses numb when we overload them,” wrote Steve Hagen in his book Buddhism: Plain and Simple. “But once they’re numb, it’s tempting to overload them even more until we’re too numb to feel much at all. This is precisely the vicious cycle of an addictive drug. The overall effect we experience is the opposite of what we desired.”
“(I)t’s not merely drugs that are addictive and have the power to take us over the edge. For example … we’ve become jaded about great art and music simply because, with our technology, we’ve made it all too commonplace. When we can see reproductions of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers regularly, we no longer see their incredible, screaming vitality. And how much power is left in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony after the hundredth hearing? (It might help to remember that for the people of Beethoven’s day, just hearing it all would be a rare event).
“How can we deal with this situation? Should we attempt to snuff out our desires? Should we think of our desires as nasty, or wrong, or evil? Of course not. Those approaches simply add more fuel to the same fire.
“So what can we do? First we see. Then we turn around and go back.
“There’s no pressure we need to put on ourselves. Simply by seeing how things actually are — what leads to confusion and what leads to clarity — we begin to turn around.”

Monday, January 9, 2017

Here There Be Super-Dragons

You might think that a winged, fire-breathing dragon from the planet Krypton would give even Superman pause.
You’d be wrong.
The last surviving snagriff arrived to menace Metropolis in Superman 78 (Sept.-Oct. 1952), having been injected with what amounted to an experimental immortality serum by Superman’s father, Jor-El.
Although more powerful than Superman, the super-beast posed no direct threat to him because it was distracted by its insatiable appetite for metal, a side effect of the serum.
That appetite proved fatal when the creature swallowed six atomic bombs and was vaporized.
Or was it?
In Superman 142 ( Jan. 1961), an identical Kryptonian monster — now called a flame dragon, not a snagriff — attacks Earth, but is disempowered by Superman’s red kryptonite, frozen by his super-breath and hurled into eternal orbit somewhere beyond Pluto.
Enter the son of the flame dragon.
When an egg left by the frozen creature hatches in Superman 151 (Feb. 1962), the Man of Steel is able to carry the young beast into the prehistoric past, where it will be at home and won’t menace humanity. In the process, fangs strong than steel injured his hand.
And there’s a good illustration of how frustrating Superman stories sometimes were for readers in the 1960s.
Instead of a battle between Superman and a truly formidable monster (which is what we wanted to see), this story turned out to be yet another secret identity puzzle, with Lois Lane determined to prove that Clark Kent’s hand was visibly injured, just like Superman’s.
As for the flame dragon, he ended up starring with Titano the Super-Ape in a knock-off of King Kong Vs. Godzilla in Jimmy Olsen’s Monster Movie (Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen 84, April 1965)
How the mighty were fallen. 

Trump: Don't Believe Your Lying Eyes

Trump’s claim that he did not mock a disabled reporter is a kind of ultimate test of his fascist aspirations. If fascists can force you to pretend that you did not see what you did see with your own eyes, then they’ve won. You are their slave.

The Problem with Psychic Powers...

Illustration by Martin's Art Dimension
“The sober old American Society for Psychical Research, distressed by the boom in psychic interest that somehow did not extend to any serious research, did a survey of bookstores,” Adam Smith (a/k/a Jerry Goodman) noted in his book Powers of Mind.
“In some anguish, it reported that 97 percent of what was on the shelves was ‘occult’ and more properly placed in fiction; only three percent was genuine psychical research. The rest is This Way to the Egress. Use Healing Rays to Repair the Body! Attract All the Money You Need! Influence the Thoughts of Others! Transform Your Surroundings! Predict Future Events.
“I have little trouble with any of these exhortations. Influence the thoughts of others: you dolt, you really don’t have it together, do you, and watch where you’re stepping! Transform your surroundings: paint, soap, brush, mop. Attract all the money you need? What is need? What is you? Use healing rays to repair the body? They aren’t rays, but the body always heals itself, the physician only sets it up, the medicine only helps. Predict future events: that’s easy, the hard part is making the event match the prediction.”
Gold finished by quoting Shakespeare, Henry IV:
Glendower: I can all spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can
any man;
But will they come when you do call
for them?

Friday, January 6, 2017

Fantasy Masterpieces: Stan Lee Aimed to Please

Stan Lee listened, True Believer!
Determined to make Marvel an interactive comic book company, with readers as stakeholders, Lee paid close attention to readers’ requests and fulfilled them whenever possible.
A battle between the Hulk and the Thing? A crossover between Iceman and the Human Torch? An Avengers lineup revamped to provide more realistic continuity? Wedding bells for Sue and Reed?
Readers had but to name them to get them.
One other thing readers wanted were Golden Age reprints, and those too, Lee provided — in marked contrast to DC Comics, which seemed extremely reluctant to reprint the earliest adventures of their super-heroes.
Superman editor Mort Weisinger claimed that was because the art was too crude, but I suspected that the infamous conniver just didn’t want to spotlight the best work of the editors who preceded him.
In 1966, two years after Captain America’s revival, we readers began seeing his early 1940s adventures in the Fantasy Masterpieces reprint giant, and could really begin to understand where these characters we loved came from.
Cap had puzzled me a little. Why did he have a super-hero origin, the super-soldier serum, but no apparent super powers? He seemed to be just a costumed acrobat, like Daredevil, but without the super senses.
Now, his initial appeal was apparent to me. The menaces, though often derivative, were wild and engaging — a Hound of the Baskervilles villain, a Hunchback of Hollywood, Ivan the Terrible, a gigantic sea serpent, a criminal disguised as a butterfly and those love-to-hate-‘em fascists, including the Red Skull. The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime fought Captain America before taking on the Rawhide Kid and the Hulk in slightly altered form. The Black Toad was determined to destroy baseball itself! How un-American!
The feature’s earliest art had Jack Kirby’s raw dynamism, but none of his later polish. Given the super-patriot angle and the bursting-through-the-panels action, I could see why this character had been so immensely popular from the start.

Putting on the Brakes, Mentally

A meme by Jim Hampton
As I was driving George Hilton Beagle to McHugh’s to pick up a cheeseburger Thursday afternoon, the brakes seemed sluggish, and they gave out entirely just as I got home, with the car rolling to a stop and the brake light coming on.
Looked like brake fluid on the fresh snow to me. I called Neal Tire and had it towed.
I must say handled the car events with mindful equanimity. I always wonder if I’ll be able to do that whenever the next crisis comes, and lately I seem to have been getting better and better at it.
I count myself lucky we weren’t on the road when the brakes failed completely.
I’m never quite sure if I can really practice what I preach, so I'm tentatively proud when I’m able to do so. With mindfulness, many of these crises CAN be managed, mentally and emotionally, without overreaction or much reaction at all, really.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

You Dare to Ignore Dr. Doom? You DARE?

Okay, Dr. Doom’s name still causes the uninitiated to snigger a little.
Let them.
It remains the name of the greatest super villain in comic book history.
A clear inspiration for Darth Vader, the metal-masked, cloaked and hooded schemer cuts an unforgettable brooding dark-green figure, thanks to artist Jack Kirby. And writer Stan Lee invested Doom with a personality more nuanced that that of previous super villains, one dominated by overweening vanity.
Doom will reject even a victory if it would somehow offend his pride. That same vanity can trip up his plans and even make him amusing when he’s not being murderous and merciless.
Given to grandiloquent “You dares!,” Doom observes matter-of-factly that his every utterance must be recorded for posterity because he is, of course, the most important thing that ever lived.
Lee also gave Dr. Doom the unique status of being a national ruler. Though a despot, Dr. Doom is not utterly evil like Captain America’s Nazi archenemy Red Skull. He’s sly and devious, but also admirably courageous, unblinkingly facing down even Galactus or the Man of Steel in his quest for unlimited power.
Unimpressed by the Superman’s threat to peel him out of “that tin suit,” the menacing monarch drily replies, “Bah! I am standing here on Latverian soil! Here, I am the LAW, alien! Are you not sworn to uphold the laws of men?”
The villains in immensely popular superhero movies are now routinely given understandable and even sad motivations for what they do, a practice that can be traced directly to Fantastic Four Annual 2 (September 1964), featuring the origin of Dr. Doom.
Lee and Kirby pretty clearly borrowed the story of Doom’s early life from the legend of another alliterative wonder worker, Count Cagliostro — specifically from the 1949 film Black Magic starring Orson Welles (an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel Joseph Balsamo).
The scenes in which the boy’s Gypsy parents are falsely accused of practicing witchcraft and condemned to death are markedly similar to the comic book story, and both boys grow up to be vengeful, power-hungry masterminds for reasons with which the audience cannot help but sympathize. In both cases, the audience is swept right up in the emotional power of the melodrama.
Doom’s mother was a sorceress executed when he was small, and his kindly Gypsy healer of a father died protecting him from exposure while fleeing from a vengeful baron who blamed the elder von Doom for failing to save his terminally ill wife.
The murder of his parents galvanizes the boy, just as it did Bruce Wayne — but in the opposite direction. Seeing where his father’s compassion had gotten him, young Victor vows to obtain power over his enemies, and everybody else.
The lab accident that disfigures von Doom puts him on the final leg of his transformational, on the same route that Dr. Strange took — to Tibet, long a central clearing house for super powers in the comics.
It’s tragic irony that this greatest of all super villains has not yet been portrayed effectively on screen.
I mean, Hollywood producers DARE?
They DARE?

NBC Hires Professional Liar Megyn Kelly

So the freshly laundered Megyn Kelly, miraculously free of the stink of her Fox News lies, is going to work for NBC.
Kelly was praised for “getting tough” with Trump, when in fact she was merely acting on orders because Roger Ailes wanted Trump knifed at that point so he could play GOP kingmaker. She’s a paid professional liar who’ll assure America’s children that Santa can only be white if you put enough zeroes on the check.
That, and her Aryan party doll looks and mean-girl smirk, are why Ailes hired her.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Marvel 1963: The Thunder and the Volcano

Introduced with that dynamic Jack Kirby/Don Heck art in Journey Into Mystery 97 (Oct. 1963), the Lava Man stands out in my mind as a favorite among the thunder god’s early foes.
Remember the context of the times, an era in which — hard as it is to conceive now — real superhero slugfests were essentially something new.
DC’s heroes, in deference to that namby-pamby Comics Code, engaged in elaborate puzzle games with their bizarre enemies, finally dispatching them with a polite single-panel punch to the chin, or forgot about fighting crime while they created complex ruses to shield the secret of their identities.
But unlike DC, Marvel introduced fresh, public-panicking physical menaces each month, formidable city-smashing super-beings that required our heroes to defeat them in hand-to-hand combat.
Also, Thor had to face this destructive heat thing from the center of the Earth while troubled by the escalating soap operatic woes Stan Lee would invent for him. The woman he loves has walked on him, quitting her job as Dr. Blake’s nurse, and Odin has forbidden him to pursue her.
As in DC’s superhero comics, the villains return, but at Marvel the ante is often upped. Defeated the first time, a Dr. Doom or a Mr. Hyde will team up with a Sub-Mariner or a Cobra to make things much tougher for our heroes in the second round.
And six months later, in Avengers 5 (May 1964), the Lava Man would return with his entire tribe. I can remember thinking that if ONE Lava Man gave Thor a fight, what might a whole RACE of them do to the Avengers? I was excited to find out.
One other intriguing angle in Marvel’s plots was that heroes and villains didn’t always behave in perfectly predictable ways. They could grow and change. The Lava Man, for example, had learned respect for surface dwellers in his battle with Thor, and tried to argue his people out of their war on humanity.

No, the Joker Is Not a Hero

This sentiment, idolizing a psychopathic killer, is kind of disgusting, indicative of degraded and deluded 21st century attitudes.
In fact, this supposedly mature viewpoint is immature. The Joker is a predatory child on Kohlberg's scale of moral development, while Batman is a fully morally developed human being.

Never Heckle a Nonconformist

Allen Ginsberg protrait by Zachary Feore
A drunk started to heckle Allen Ginsberg during a reading of his poem Howl in Los Angeles in 1956.
“Allen politely asked him to hear out the reading and said he would be pleased to hear his opinions afterward,” biographer Barry Miles noted. “That stopped the heckler for a bit, but when Gregory (Corso) got up to read, the drunk interrupted. ‘What are you guys trying to prove?’ he demanded.
“Allen immediately yelled out, ‘Nakedness!’
“ ‘What do you mean, nakedness?” asked the drunk.
“ ‘I meant spiritual nakedness,’ Ginsberg explained later. ‘Poetic nakedness — candor. Then I suddenly realized what I had said. Inspired, I started taking off my clothes.’
“‘All right,’ Allen challenged the drunk. ‘You want to do something brave, don’t you? Something brave? Well, go on, do something really brave. Take off your clothes!’
The man was speechless. Allen advanced on him, tearing off his shirt. ‘Come on and stand here, stand naked before the people. I dare you! The poet always stands naked before the world.’ Allen threw his shirt and undershirt at the man’s feet, and he began to back away. ‘You’re scared, aren’t you?’ asked Allen. ‘You’re afraid.’ Allen kicked off his shoes and socks and pulled down his pants. Doing a little hopping dance, he kicked them off... He was now completely naked. The drunk had by now retreated to the back of the room. The audience sat in stunned silence.
“Suddenly the room exploded in cheers, jeers, applause and angry argument. The drunk was booed and hissed until he left. Anaïs Nin was impressed and wrote in her journal; ‘The way he did it was so violent and direct, it had so much meaning in terms of all our fears of unveiling ourselves.’”

Monday, January 2, 2017

Doctor Solar: Gold Key's God in a Lab Coat

In 1962, when I was 8 and all grown up, either the absurdity of superhero costumes was starting to bother me, or I was just looking for a fresh approach to the kinds of characters I loved.
In any case, I embraced Gold Key’s Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom when I ran across his second issue (Dec. 1962).
A scientist altered by radiation even more bizarrely than Bruce Banner had been, essentially into a being of pure energy, Raymond Solar was as breathtakingly powerful as Superman.
Solar could fly at the speed of light. He had radar vision. He could walk beneath the ocean by surrounding himself with an oxygen bubble. He could superheat himself, freeze things, control magnetic forces like Cosmic Boy and fire lightning bolts from his eyes like Lightning Lad.
The scientist discovered through experimentation that he could split himself into multiple, smaller duplicates or grow to gigantic size. We readers got the sense that Solar could pretty much do anything if he put his logical mind to work on it long enough.
Even though Alan Moore based Watchmen on Charlton Comics’ superheroes, the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan was probably closer to Solar than he was to his direct inspiration, Captain Atom.
Solar’s vast power appealed to me. So did Bob Fujitani’s art, which had the restrained, refined clarity of a realistic newspaper comic strip — a style well suited to this character, who wore no costume.
Again like the Hulk, Solar was easily identifiable when charged with radioactivity because he turned green. He also wore a white lab coat, seemingly a required uniform for fictional scientists in the 1950s and 1960s.
Solar had only a single archenemy, one who anticipated the James Bond films. Nuro was a shadowy, Blofeld-like mastermind intelligent enough to suspect the existence of a mystery “Man of the Atom” because his schemes were constantly being thwarted by unexplainable phenomena. Hero and villain were both hidden forces playing cat-and-mouse.
As written by Paul S. Newman, Solar’s adventures had that thin veneer of verisimilitude which helped me appreciate them at the time, and I was eager to find out what new “scientific” powers he’d dream up to counter whatever national or global threat would appear in each new issue.
Until the fifth one. 
I can remember my sense of disappointment when I saw the cover and realized that Solar had, in fact, finally adopted a superhero costume after all, and would now be known to the public as the masked Man of the Atom.
What had made him unique was gone.
I bought that issue, then moved on to the many other superhero titles that were beginning to appear.
I don’t envy the comic book editors of the 1960s trying to understand the vagaries of children’s shifting tastes. Here I was, blaming Solar for having a costume when I had rejected the Fantastic Four for not having them less than a year before.
I didn’t buy the second issue of the FF because I couldn’t tell, from the cover, whether or not they were superheroes. I wasn’t alone and, ever-sensitive to the readers’ desires, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby not only put them in costumes on the cover of the third issue, but dropped them into their own flying “Batmobile” (Why hadn’t Batman thought of that?).
I couldn’t part with my 12 cents fast enough.

The Great American Cretin Takes Charge

Ikigai: The Intersection of Meaning and Life

My friend Jim Hampton pointed out this Venn diagram, which I love. It is what I have found myself, and what I tried to teach college students.
Jim asked if the student “got it.” I replied, “Some definitely did, some never did. And some wanted to.”
Jim said, “The first and last in that list are the best of students. The middle, well... how sad for them.”
I sad, “Yes. But is their choice.”
Wiki reports: Ikigai is a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being.” Everyone, according to the Japanese, has an ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. Such a search is regarded as being very important, since it is believed that discovery of one's ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life. Examples include work, hobbies and raising children.
The term ikigai compounds two Japanese words: iki meaning “life; alive” and kai “(an) effect; (a) result; (a) fruit; (a) worth; (a) use; (a) benefit; (no, little) avail” (sequentially voiced as gai) “a reason for living [being alive]; a meaning for [to] life; what [something which] makes life worth living; a raison d'etre.”
In the culture of Okinawa, ikigai is thought of as “a reason to get up in the morning;” that is, a reason to enjoy life. In a TED Talk, Dan Buettner suggested ikigai as one of the reasons people in the area had such long lives.
The word ikigai is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile. Secondly, the word is used to refer to mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable. It’s not necessarily linked to one's economic status or the present state of society. Even if a person feels that the present is dark, but they have a goal in mind, they may feel ikigai. Behaviors that make us feel ikigai are not actions which we are forced to take—these are natural and spontaneous actions.
In the article named Ikigai — jibun no kanosei, kaikasaseru katei (“Ikigai: the process of allowing the self's possibilities to blossom”) Kobayashi Tsukasa says that "people can feel real ikigai only when, on the basis of personal maturity, the satisfaction of various desires, love and happiness, encounters with others, and a sense of the value of life, they proceed toward self-realization.”

Brady Tries Defying Gravity

Photograph by Christian Dionne.
I just closed out my 67,424-word journal for 2016, and thought I’d need an uplifting image at the top of the 2017 journal, since I’ll see it every day. So I posted this image of a friend, actor and dancer Brady Miller, which I call "Defying Gravity."