The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier by Gabriel Mckee
Available now! "This fascinating hybrid of theology and sci-fi is creative, lucid and contains impressive scholarship."—Publishers Weekly
Don't mistake the sluggishness of this blog for inactivity: there's been much going on behind the scenes lately. Most relevant to our purposes here are a couple of Philip K. Dick-related writing projects. I wrote a review of the final volume of the Selected Letters for the SFRA Review. It's not yet available online, but it will hopefully be up soon at the SFRA's website. (I may post it here soon as well.) More importantly, I have a forthcoming essay in Boom! Studios' comics adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? My piece, which looks at the theological and ethical content of DADOES (but not quite so boringly as I just made it sound), will appear in #21, due out sometime in March. I'm told that issue also includes some major material relating to the empathy-based religion of Mercerism and its enigmatic messiah, Wilbur Mercer-- quite appropriate, I think.
Then there's my best-things-I-read-this-year roundup for SF Signal's Mind Meld, which you can read here. I hope to return to this soon with a bit more robust listing of recently-read materials. (I've been kicking myself since late December because I completely forgot to mention what was actually the best thing I read last year-- C.M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl's The Space Merchants, which is every bit as good as you've heard and more.)
Less theologically-relevant, but certainly no less fun, I've been involved in the operation of a gallery show featuring the work of the Sucklord, easily the best artist working in the art-toy idiom. His bootleg toys, mostly cast in resin from remixed molds, are irritating, hilarious, and firmly rooted in a brand of nerdishness that I appreciate greatly. The Suckadelic universe contains only supervillains, with names like "Star Chump" and "Galactic Jerkbag." The Sucklord's primary reference points are in the Star Wars realm, but my favorite piece is a bit more obscure:
The Salarystak is the middle piece in a series that also includes the "Altrusian"--a simple-yet-elegant knockoff of Land of the Lost's Sleestak--and the Starstak, a highly-evolved future form of the same. In addition to the great visual, I love the SFnal moral dilemma that the Salarystak embodies:
"To which end of the spectrum is his pendulum swinging? He knows not, for he is ignorant of his place in the temporal timeline. He has closed the mental door of escape and filled the void with his Career, his family, his mortgage, his car, and his martinis. Only in his deepest subconscious lies the dim comprehension that there is a bigger picture and something greater is at stake..."
Of course, in the world of the Sucklord, a triptych is presented as a multi-figure blister-pack:
There is a very good chance that I'll be adding that little item to my collection before the show closes on January 23rd. Another contender, this one with a bit more theological flavor to it: A series of four Greek-ish gods, presented as supervillains, who govern everyday disappointments: Chronos (wasted time), Tyros (insufficient income), Daemos (aches and pains), Mordros (general aimlessness), Eros (a broken heart). Nicest touch: their heads are polyhedral dice. [UPDATE: How did I neglect to mention the most theological piece of all, the Crucifett?:]
You can check out what's for sale in the current gallery show at Suckshoppe.com and peruse the exhibit catalog below (warning: it's not for the faint of heart, the easily-offended, or those with good taste in general).
First: No, I still haven't seen Kick-Ass, though I probably will by the end of the week. A pale glimmer of hope still burns deep within my heart that somehow something good could be harvested from the fairly execrable source material.* But I have been reading much about it in the last few days. To wit:
Roger Ebert did not like it, not at all. In fact, it made him sad. That's perhaps the biggest strike against it yet. I like Roger Ebert. I don't like things that make Roger Ebert sad. He's a nice guy, and he doesn't need to be made sad. More to the point, his reasons: they mostly involve children and violence, not the deeper elements of "missing the point of superheroes" that I discussed in my review of the comic. Let's be clear about this: it's not the violence that bothered me in Kick-Ass-- that is, not the violence alone. Lots of things that I like are violent, and I think violence in entertainment serves important social and psychological purposes. But, in genre terms, the violence needs to be there for a reason beyond itself.** In Kick-Ass-- the comic, at least-- the violence is there simply to be "kick-ass," in support of a story that is no story.
In response, Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News writes a rebuttal that rebuts... nothing. Instead of offering an argument against Ebert's points or a defense of the role that violence plays in the film, he meanders on for a few paragraphs about how the movie isn't for kids, kids today are different than they were in the '50s, and in the '50s kids played with guns anyway, but kids will probably see it despite its R rating, and what were we talking about again? Indeed, by arguing that "the sort of kids that will see Kick-Ass this weekend are well prepared for it," he actually ends up explaining exactly why the film makes Ebert sad, perhaps better than Ebert himself did.
I quite like Slate's review, because it basically says all the stuff I said about the comic (so maybe I wasn't misreading the whole thing all along!). According to Dana Stevens, the film
never provides a reason for Dave's transformation into Kick-Ass beyond his vague adolescent notion that being a superhero sounds neat. That may be enough to justify Dave's embarking on the experiment, but it doesn't explain why he continues to venture out in costume after being beaten, stabbed, and hit by a car.
Late in the movie, in voice-over, Dave puts a glum twist on a line from Spider-Man: "With no power comes no responsibility." If this film proposed any alternate moral vision, that line might count a sly reappropriation of the original. As the prelude to a climactic orgy of bloodletting set to the punk anthem "Bad Reputation," the joke comes off as nihilistic and flip. What do these characters consider worthy of killing and dying for? That a protagonist lacks superpowers is no reason for him to lack motivation, conviction, or purpose.
Nicely put. Hey, she even said "nihilistic"!
Echoing another thread from my review of the comic, friend of this blog Erin Snyder writes on the Middle Room that the movie isn't fun. And might have (gasp) benefitted from being toned down by a studio.
On the other hand, another friend (who watched the movie, very likely with Mr. Snyder, but has not read the comic) informs me that many of the lines I quoted in my review appear in the movie in contexts different enough to invert their original meanings. And I know that the "first mission" was changed from beating up graffiti writers to beating up honest-to-goodness burglars, which likely lessens the racial overtones that irked me. So maybe the film gives more context and a better sense of purpose to the character? I dunno; I'll find out soon.
Lastly, Millar's recent interview with the Onion AV Club is worth reading. He has some interesting things to say about, for instance, the role that conservatism and conservative characters play in his work. I think he's a bit in error, though, in describing Superman and Batman as "law-enforcement people" and "authority figures." I actually think that superheroes are countercultural figures who critique or even undermine society's values rather than uphold them. More on this later...
*That hope mostly has to do with McLovin, because that kid is hilarious.
**For this reason I hated the French horror film High Tension/Haute Tension, which has some extreme, and extremely unpleasant, violence at the beginning. Until the final moments of the film, I was hoping it would give me some kind of payoff to justify that unpleasantness; instead it served up one of the worst twists in film history.
Sorry to be a contrarian, folks, but I am anything but excited about Kick-Ass. In fact, I hated just about everything about the comic series it's based on, which I felt totally missed the point of superheroes in its ham-fisted attempt at satirizing the genre and its fans. I feel so strongly about it that I wrote a lengthy essay on the story's many, many failings, which you can read as a guest post at SF Signal. An excerpt:
The problem is that Kick-Ass wants to be a superhero, but his conception of heroism is all wrong. “We only get one life,” he says, “and I wanted mine to be exciting.” He sees the thrills, the violence, but not the underlying sense of moral mission. He says himself that he has no real origin, that “It didn't take a trauma to make you wear a mask... Just the perfect combination of loneliness and despair.” But Spider-Man or Batman's trauma isn’t just a throwaway aspect of their stories; it’s the guiding force behind their every action. A hero who begins with nothing but “loneliness and despair,” not an all-consuming moral imperative to improve the world, is by definition a nihilistic figure. Dave Lizewski is really not a superhero at all—in genre classic terms, he’s Peter Parker after the radioactive spider-bite but before the death of Uncle Ben. His actions aren’t altruistic in the least—he continues putting on the costume because he likes to ride the ego wave that comes from his Youtube fame... In a recent interview Millar stated that Kick-Ass dons his costume “because it's the right thing to do. In a weird way, if you push past all the blood and the swearing, it's quite a moral tale.” But because the character lacks a complete origin, a reason to think that what he’s doing is the right thing, it’s not a moral tale—in fact, it’s a decidedly amoral one. And without the sense of a moral mission, he’s simply not a superhero. Without murdered parents, Batman wouldn’t be a hero; he’d just be a guy who dresses up and punch people—which is basically what Kick-Ass is. In short, the book simply doesn’t understand the genre it purports to be commenting on. Superheroes work in large part because of the heroic myth at their core. In throwing out this central, defining trait of that myth, Kick-Ass loses any resonance it might have otherwise had.
Read the full essay at SF Signal.
While researching this essay, I learned that Mark Millar, writer of the comic and executive producer of the film, is a Catholic who attends mass every week. Given my interpretation of Kick-Ass as an amoral, nihilistic, Ennisian mess, I don't know what to make of that fact. Any thoughts? Share 'em below.
And, while you're at it, check out my review of The Wicker Man from a few years ago, in which I explored the movie's depiction of clashing religious ideologies.
Oh, hey, it's embeddable:
R. Crumb's Book of Genesis Illustrated is now out, and my review is up at Religion Dispatches, in a dual review with the Wolverton Bible.
There is nothing sacred to underground and alternative comics creators. Irreverence has been a defining characteristic of the movement since the 1960s, when creators like R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton began using the words-and-pictures medium to create scathing, sex-and-drug-filled satires of square culture. No subject was safe from the savage pens of these cartoonists, and religion—or, more specifically, sanctimoniousness—was a common target... [However,] far from the sharp satire that one might expect from the creator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, Genesis is a remarkably straight, even reverent, adaptation.
Many of the most intriguing images in [Basil Wolverton's Old Testament illustrations] feature outlandish pagan idols depicted with a sense of joy and whimsy that suggest Wolverton's delight in the more outré aspects of scripture. A more gruesomely playful example is a terrifying image of the blinding of Samson: given the demonizing of the "injury to the eye motif" in Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and the Senate hearings on violent comics that it produced, one wonders if this image wasn't a sly comment on the broader cultural meaning of violent art.
The uninformed backlash to Crumb's opus has already begun. The Wall Street Journal quotes a spokesperson for the Church of England's declaration: "I haven’t seen the book but I think trying to sell something by emphasizing the sexual nature of some of the scenes doesn’t seem to be a good way to pass on the message of the Bible." Haven't seen the book, indeed-- Crumb, surprisingly, doesn't emphasize the sex in Genesis; but neither does he Bowdlerize it. This I-don't-know-what-it-is-but-I-don't-like-it kind of reaction is more than a little reminiscent of the demonization of The Last Temptation of Christ. Both that film and the book on which it was based carry a powerful-- and orthodox!-- Christological message, but that didn't stop protestors who had never seen the movie from ddeclaring it offensive. Some Christian conservatives have backpedaled on Last Temptation (after, y'know, actually watching it), so perhaps Crumb's Genesis will gain some acceptance in twenty years or so...
Read my full review, and see a few pictures from the books, here.
An announcement: I've been invited to speak at this year's Cornerstone Festival (in Bushnell, Illinois, from July 1-3)!
"But I thought that was a Christian music festival, and as far as I know you're not a musician!", you say? Well, you're correct. But part of the festival is the Imaginarium, which houses seminars on a variety of topics. This year's title is "Make. Believe. Heroes"—in other words, the religious aspects of superheroes. I'll be giving three one-hour sessions on the morality and ontology of superhero universes under the title "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility." The full summary:
Despite the deconstructed superness of Watchmen et al., the original point of superheroes wasn't to make us wish we had superpowers -- though that certainly would be fun! -- but rather to make us wish for the clear moral discernment that allows superheroes to do the right thing. The creators of the most influential superheroes -- immigrants or children of immigrants like Siegel and Schuster or Jack Kirby -- used their creations to imagine a better world where the powerless had a stronger voice. This seminar explores superheroes as champions of the downtrodden, and notions of superhero morality.
Other sessions in the Imaginarium will cover Watchmen, moral grey zones in postmodern superheroics, and saints as superheroes. Check out the full schedule here, and perhaps I'll see you there!
In tangentially-related news, at Comics Should Be Good, Brian Cronin shares his favorite Mid-90s Badass Jesus Comic (to wit: Glory/Avengelyne II: The Godyssey #1).
Over at our comics-and-religion-themed cousin blog Holy Heroes!!, I've just posted a big ol' roundup of ten recent and forthcoming comics about religion. Reverent? Irreverent? Irrelevant? We've got 'em all!
Featured: Oeming's Rapture, the Wolverton Bible, and butt-kicking Jesus!
Check out the full list here.
Watchmen is a good, and even a great, comic. But the best ever written? Hardly—and it's not even Alan Moore's best work, either. Here are my picks for Moore stories slightly more deserving of the praise that's heaped on Watchmen.
Much of what Moore does in Watchmen he did first and better with this series. This reimagining of Marvelman, the UK's homegrown Captain Marvel knockoff, is the grandaddy of all "what-would-it-be-really-be-like" superhero stories. Few comics stories so fully embody the concept of superheroes as mythology: the title character is, quite literally, a god; his chief villain, former sidekick Kid Miracleman, is far more demonic than the word "villain" implies. Little surprise, then, that Neil Gaiman's follow-up run (incidentally his best work ever, too) treats Moore's 16 issues as scripture on which to build an exegesis. Add to all that career-best art from the likes of John Totleben, Alan Davis, and Garry Leach, and you've got my pick for the best comic of all time.
Moore's meticulously-imagined recreation of Victorian London is far more than a Jack the Ripper story. Using the 1888 murders as a backdrop, the story explores the nature of mysticism, insanity, and evil. Nothing in this story is out of place, and at times—such as when the killer seems to travel through time after one of the murders—the reader gets a glimpse of bizarre transcendence, too.
This is the one that really started it all, launching not only Alan Moore's career in American comics but also singlehandedly creating the entire idea of mainstream mature-readers comics. Moore had an inspired way of wrapping up the loose ends of the previous writer's plot threads: he killed the title character in his first issue, and in this, his second, he quite literally rebuilds him from the ground up. Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Warren Ellis—in other words, the last 20 years of comics—owe everything to the model Moore created here. And all that in 23 pages! (DC has made "The Anatomy Lesson" available for free here. Be arned that the coloring is wonky; Swampie is yellow instead of green-and-brown. Maybe they mistook him for the Floronic Man?)
If I have one complaint about Watchmen, it's this: it doesn't live up to the promise of this, its single best chapter and possibly the best single issue of a comic ever created. The rhythm of Dr. Manhattan's melancholy origin story is simply perfect, and in his time-detached reminiscences we get a glimpse inside the mind of a god. Here is a part that's greater than its sum.
Runners-up (or "about as good as Watchmen"):
Promethea: Like Watchmen, the series is a bit too long for its story. But Moore's exploration of his own religious/magical ideas is fascinating, and the art is simply gorgeous.
Top Ten: Alan Moore has a darned good sense of humor, and this superhero-cop mashup is his funniest.
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?: This "last Superman story" is a great meditation on the nature and meaning of an icon.
A Small Killing: You'd be forgiven for never having heard of it. This collaboration with Oscar Zarate is a character study of an advertising executive who begins to question the path his life has taken. Short and sweet (or should that be "sour"?)
*Some would say "Marvelman," the title under which the series began in the UK. But later—particularly in the Neil Gaiman issues—the term "Miracle" becomes an important part of the setting. If and when the series is ever reprinted or completed, I for one hope they stick with "Miracleman" as the title.
Oh, and also, I really wish they would stop calling Zack Snyder a "visionary director."