Saturday, July 25, 2015

Sometimes I Feel So Deserted

It was a big week for comics over at the AV Club, for whose annual Comics Week I contributed a few articles of note to faithful readers.
I wrote a brief(ish) history of one my favorite superheroes, Ant-Man. Even at 2500 words there was still a lot I had to leave out.

I contributed five write-ups for this week's comics panel, dedicated to the week's theme of "Loser Superheroes." I think we each approached our entries differently - I went for the yuks, mostly. I supposedly got one of my editors to snort milk all over her keyboard, so there's that.

I interviewed one of my favorite comics people - and one of two great inspirations for this site (along with Abhay Khosla) - Jon Morris, in celebration of the release of his first book, The League of Regrettable Superheroes (which I also reviewed here a few weeks back). One thing I didn't get the chance to ask Jon about, because I only found out literally the day after the interview was posted, is that his book (or a special edition thereof) was selected for this month's Loot Crate. Given the type of sales boosts we usually see for Loot Crate orders in the Direct Market, I think its fair to say The League of Regrettable Superheroes is doing pretty well, and a sequel might not be entirely beyond the realm of possibility. Still, if you haven't purchased your copy yet, you should do so at your earliest opportunity.

Even though it's connection to comics is tangential at best, my review of The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker / Pinhead obituary was inexplicably published under the "Comics Week" banner as well. If you like my writing on Hellraiser - of which I am still the Comics Blogosphere's #1 Authority, lest ye forget - this one's for you.

And don't forget to check out my unfairly neglected exclusive excerpt of Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman, while you're at it. Personally, I don't understand the big controversy - makes sense to me.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Go Set A Watchman

Chapter One

It was a quiet southern night, hot and humid like a woolen blanket pulled over the head of a sleeping person. It was comfortable but it was also not comfortable, a little bit like being suffocated by pudding.

Jem sat on the porch looking at the fireflies dancing across the lawn. He was holding a mason jar filled with sweet tea, the kind made just for sipping while sitting on the porch looking at the fireflies dancing across the lawn. The whistle from the evening train sounded in the distance as the locomotive pulled out of the station on its way to Macomb or Atlanta or another location somewhere in the South.

From a distance there appeared a figure walking on the road towards Jem's house. It was a woman - a female - carrying a suitcase. She appeared to be about the same height and build as Jem's sister, Scout, on whom he had been waiting to arrive home on a trip from the North, where she had settled after leaving the South. She didn't live in the South anymore, because she had left for the North, and had lived there for a while prior to her returning down South for what she had told him was a short trip. On second examination, however, it actually was Scott herself just then, carrying a suitcase and walking down the road.

"Howdy, Scout," Jem said to his sister Scout as she walked up the walkway to the porch.

"Hello, Jem," she replied. "What are you doing on this fine southern night?"

"Just sitting on the porch looking at those fireflies dance across the lawn. Thinking about things, you know. About the South. About history, and the wages of prejudice, and why men cannot be good to one another, as one does."

"I see nothing has changed here in the South, brother."

"One could almost say that the South was a region where history never quite moved forward, almost," he replied, "at least that is the conclusion that I often reach on my musings about the unique historical destiny of the the region we call home, the American South."

Scout sat on the porch swing next to Jem (Jem was sitting on a porch swing) and laughed. She was four years younger than her brother, but in many ways she was wiser. One of those ways was that she was smarter than him.

"Silly Jem, always worrying." Jem was, in fact, often worrying about things.

"Well, you know, Scout, we didn't all leave for the fancy North."

"No, we all didn't," Scout concurred.

"But since you ask, I was thinking about our childhood, and the events of our childhood. Do you remember that Atticus used to tell us that you should never kill a mockingbird, because it is a sin to do so?"

"Why yes I do, Jem. In fact, I remember it often because father spoke of it often."

"Yes. It was such a resonant and thematically significant statement."

"But like many things relating to our beloved father, Atticus Finch, I see now that the sentiment was flawed."

"Why, how is that, sister?"

"Because it is not factually true that one should never kill a mockingbird. There are circumstances under which it is in fact permitted to shoot a mockingbird."

"Such as when, Scout?"

"If a mockingbird is on your land, you can shoot it because it belongs to you. If you see a mockingbird on someone else's property, you may not shoot it because then it is not your property."

"But Scout, I don't believe Atticus was referring to who literally owns the land on which the birds are sitting."

"If he wasn't," she replied, "he should have been. All rights are merely extrapolations of property rights, after all, and without clearly delineated property rights we exist in a state of criminal anarchy."

"But there are lots of things that don't have to do with property, Scout."

"Like what?"

"Well, like justice and kindness, and being nice, and humid evenings in the South."

Scout laughed again. "Jem! You are very funny! But don't you know 'justice' is a myth and kindness is weakness?"

"I do not, because that goes against everything we were taught by our father Atticus when we were very young."

"'Justice' is a lie told by the weak in order to justify their resentment of the wealthy. The belief that the coercive power of the state can be used by the poor to even the score with the capitalist class is Communistic."

"I don't think I follow you, Scout."

"Jem," she said after pausing for a moment, "do you know about the Makers and the Takers?"

"Why, no."

"There are two kinds of people in this world. There are people who make things, who exert their will on the world in order to wrest order from chaos, to create and to guide the advancement of the human race. Do you follow me?"

"Yes Scout, so far."

"Well, the other kind of people are the Takers. They resent Makers because they are jealous and know they do not have the strength necessary in order to create things and steer the destiny of nations. So they band together in order to use the sum of their weakness to topple the strong from their position of natural superiority."

"But that doesn't make sense, Scout. There's lots of people who don't have much, and they're not all bad people."

"I don't think you understand what you're saying, Jem. If they were strong, robust, physically capable, and mentally focused, would they be poor?"

"Well, you know, some people fall down on bad luck -"

"Luck is an excuse used by Takers to describe inequality, when the only true source of inequality is nature itself. If you are wealthy, you are already strong, robust, physically capable, and mentally focused, or else how would you even be successful?"

"Well, I guess that makes sense . . . "

"Of course it does. It's self-evident - the strong rule because they are strong. A child can understand that."

"But that's not justice, Scout. Justice is . . . well, justice is right and wrong."

"Jem, what is right?"

"Why, you know. It's what Atticus told us about being kind and decent and never judging a man until you can walk a mile in their shoes."

"We were indoctrinated as children to believe that compassion was a source of strength, when in reality compassion is the wellspring of weakness."

"Well, I know that's not true."

"Why do you know that? Because Atticus told us?"

". . ."

"Think about this: you may think charity is a form of compassion, but isn't charity more accurately described as a form of slavery?"

"I really don't understand, Scout."

"It's not hard! To act selflessly - why, there is no greater obscenity in the world! To act for someone else - it's a contradiction. If a person acts against their own interests, why, they're insane. Self-interest is the highest motive of civilized mankind. Far from virtue, charity is the greatest possible sin."

"But what about kindness?"

"Just what is kindness?"

"Why, it's being good to one another, being nice and courteous and helping one another."

"Helping one another? Help yourself, brother. If you give other people the opportunity, they will take everything from you. And if you let them, well, you deserve every bad thing that happens."

"I don't believe that."

"Well, whether or not you believe it, it's the self-evident truth. The Takers are always going to be waiting to catch you when you fall, which is why you must be ever vigilant against their depredations. Never live for another, or you will find yourself their slave."

"Well, I guess if someone steals from me, they're bad."

"And it's worse still to invite the thief into your house and tell them to make themselves comfortable. You pay your taxes, right?"

"Why, of course I pay my taxes, Scout."

"We all have to pay our taxes, because the criminal government holds an advantage over us in physical strength. Through coercion, they can steal a proportion of our hard-earned assets, and the proportion of our assets they can seize with impunity is the proportion to which we are made into slaves by the criminal government."

"But taxes pay for things like roads, and bridges, and schools."

"All of which could be handled far more efficiently by the private sector. If bridges need to be built, an entrepreneur will invest the time and resources to build that bridge, and it's a certainty that his bridge will be more effective than any bridge the government could build. And if he takes the risk necessary to build the bridge, isn't it only natural that he be allowed to profit off his invention?"

"Well, I guess so . . ."

"You guess correctly! The government is in reality a cartel dedicated to corruption and wealth redistribution, and it is the responsibility of the sovereign individual to resist this act of theft however they can."

"But what about things like courts and police officers?"

"We need courts, obviously, but I don't see any reason why private institutions couldn't establish and maintain courts a lot more efficiently than the government. After all, wouldn't a private court be far better able to adjudicate contracts?"

"But it seems to me that if courts were private, the person who could buy the court would be able to get any kind of rulings he wanted."

"Exactly! So the person most deserving of 'justice,' to use your word, would be guaranteed to receive justice in 100% of all cases."

"But what about police?"

"The same principle applies. Police exist to maintain the inviolability of property rights. Therefore, it makes sense that a private police force would be better positioned to protect property rights, as opposed to a public police force that must, perforce, naturally follow the illegitimate interests of the criminal government."

"Well, that's fine, but what about murder? Surely, no one can buy the right to murder?"

"Can't they, though?"

"I really don't follow you, Scout."

"Why, it's absurdly simple. Murder is an act of killing, an act wherein one sovereign individual consciously and without hesitation takes the life of another sovereign individual, therefore depriving him of life and limb. Right?" "Well, I guess so."

"So doesn't it stand to reason that truly exceptional individuals, individuals gifted with the natural strength and intelligence that places them above the ordinary run of man, already can murder as they wish?"

"That doesn't make any sense!"

"It's difficult to grasp, perhaps, because it's so simple. You agree, don't you, with the simple proposition that A=A, right?

"Well, of course, that's just common sense."

"Exactly! And so if one thing is always equal to itself, then doesn't it follow that the ability to take a life freely creates its own justification for doing so?"

". . ."

"There should be no gap between impulse and execution. Deliberation is for the weak who require rationalization to excuse their actions. The ability to act creates the necessity of action. To act otherwise is . . . why, it's just unnatural. Makers have the responsibility to act in accordance to their wills. To believe otherwise, to be swayed from self-actualization by the 'logic' of the Takers, well, that's ludicrous."

"But but that reasoning, I can do anything and claim it's right simply because I can."

"Now you get it, Jem! I knew you understood what I was saying. Does it make any sense to you that even an infinite number of negative numbers can ever equal a positive number?"

"Well, of course not."

"Then why should the will of the majority - the mass of slaves, the Takers - ever be able to counter the will of the Maker? Shouldn't the righteousness of one powerful man always be greater than the mass of parasites known as 'society'?"

"Alright, I follow you so far, but what about prejudice?"

"What about it?"

"How do these ideas eliminate prejudice?"

"They can't! Prejudice is, at its core, a market inefficiency."

"OK, Scout, I really don't understand now."

"Markets work best when all actors can act according to the best knowledge they possess, right? Therefore, acting out of prejudice, if we accept the premise that prejudice is a kind of ignorance, simply hurts those who do so."

"Well, I guess I see that . . ."

"And if the victim of prejudice can't overcome that kind of market inefficiency, well, aren't they really victims of their own weakness?"

"I don't know, Scout . . ."

"The worst thing you could do is to accept the solutions presented by the criminal government for redress in the case of racial prejudice. You can't legislate the market. The only way you can conquer the market is through strength of will."

"That seems harsh, to me."

"Maybe it does, but maybe that kind of 'harshness' is the real justice. Have you ever thought of it that way?"

"I guess not! But I still don't understand how it isn't a sin to kill a mockingbird. I mean, all they do is sing and bring music to the world, with no hope of recompense."

"A mockingbird is an animal. It is incapable of conscious thought and action. Can a mockingbird excavate the mountains and the earth to bring forth iron and stone with which to express its will through the act of creation? Can a mockingbird build factories to create smoke to blot out the sun, to serve as a reminder of the glory and strength of man? Or is a mockingbird essentially a Taker, living on your land, eating the fruit of your garden, subject to your rule?"

"I guess so!"

"If the mockingbird is alive on your property, then the mockingbird is your property. Therefore, you have every right to kill or not kill that mockingbird as you wish. If someone else kills your mockingbird, however, then they have committed a sin against you, by violating your property rights."

"Well, you sure are smarter than me, Scout. I guess you've learned something up in the big city after all. But there's one thing I'm still confused of - just how do you protect your property from the Takers who are always trying to tear you down?"

"Well, in this case, the answer is simple: if someone keeps killing your mockingbirds, you should go set a watchmen to protect them."

"It all makes perfect sense now."

"It sure does, Jem. It sure does."

Monday, July 06, 2015

Meet the New Boss

Hey, kids, do you like punk rock?

Remember back in the halcyon days of this morning when the comics internet was up in arms that DC had hired a coterie of aging white male comics writers to create new series featuring some of their signature characters? You know, like Marv Wolfman writing Raven and Len Wein writing Swamp Thing? Dan Didio has already been execrated for saying that "[their] task was to 'freshen up and contemporize' . . . We want the best writers working on our characters, and these are the best writers for these characters." If he had simply said that these were the best writers for the characters at hand, that may still have been a questionable point, but it would at least be an arguable point. You would have a hard time arguing that Len Wein, for instance, wasn't a good choice to write the character he co-created, after all. But he went a step further and said that these writers were tasked with "[freshening] up and [contemporizing]" - which brings to mind the idea that perhaps these original creators aren't the best choices to go when looking for something new. It's simply disingenuous to assert that these men are the best people for that job.

Which isn't to say the books might not be good. They could very well be. But whether or not they are fresh and contemporary remains to be seen.

And then the other shoe dropped and it was announced that Grant Morrison would be taking over as the new EIC of venerable hesher institution Heavy Metal. All well and good, you might say.
“We’re trying to bring back some of that ’70s punk energy of Heavy Metal, but update it and make it new again,” says Morrison, 55, adding that his first comics work, in the Scottish comics mag Near Myths, was directly inspired by Heavy Metal. “One of the things I like to do in my job is revamp properties and really get into the aesthetic of something, dig into the roots of what makes it work, then tinker with the engine and play around with it."
The average age of the writers hired by DC to head their new "fresh and contemporary" initiative is 62.3. Grant Morrison is 55, but it's that 7.3 years that makes all the difference - the difference in this case being whether you roll your joints on a Hawkwind LP or snort amphetamines off a Plasmatics 7".

But what other secrets does the press release have to offer? "Morrison plans to write comic strips and prose material for the bimonthly magazine, too. He says he’s just beginning to reach out to talent in hopes of recruiting them. On his radar: Past collaborators Chris Burnham (Nameless) and Frazer Irving (Annihilator)." When asked to name future contributors to his magazine, he lists off two artists he knows personally, both competent journeymen mainstream comics artists, neither of whose personal styles would have seemed particularly out of place in the old Heavy Metal:

If posting promotional materials from their respective Batman runs seems like a cheap shot, well, it is. Instead of occasionally interesting if mostly puerile European imports, the magazine is going to be giving us the cream of the American mainstream's occasionally interesting if mostly puerile creators, now free to draw all the tits they want.

Is that a cheap shot, too?

Grant Morrison has never been a professional editor. He likes to put his face and his name on things - books, movies, conventions, and apparently the cover of Heavy Metal. Probably more important is the announcement that Brian Witten will be the new President of Heavy Metal, the company. Witten is a Hollywood producer with copious experience in genre film - stuff like the 2009 Friday the 13th reboot, and 1997's Spawn. He got his start in Hollywood by partnering with Rob Liefeld, so he has lots of experience working with egomaniacal flakes.

Morrison doesn't have the best track record in looking outside the bubble of his immediate surroundings. His Heavy Metal - inasmuch as we will be able to call it "his" since the actual day-to-day editing work will almost certainly be someone else's responsibility - will probably not feature an influx of new indie creators ready to take real chances. This won't be Kramer's Ergot 2015 - nor should we expect it to be. It'll be a facelift designed for the express purpose of leveraging a soggy brand name into a "bleeding edge" IP farm. It will be very interesting to see when and if the new Heavy Metal contracts leak - who will own what rights, and for how long? They wouldn't be hiring someone like Witten if they weren't poised to write a new business plan as a prelude to a capital influx, and inevitably what investors are going to want is not to be attached to a creatively ambitious white elephant futurist magazine, but an established brand name with ambitions of being an adult version of Marvel Studios.

And oh, hey, what else does the EW press release explicitly say?
While Morrison works reinvigorate Heavy Metal magazine, [brand owners] Krelitz and Boxenbaum are looking to build up Heavy Metal in other media. There’s now a Heavy Metal record label with BMG. There are television shows in various stages of development. And Krelitz is mapping out a bold plan for a shared movie universe, comprised of different Heavy Metal-branded franchises, analogous to the Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment philosophy. Where Marvel and DC make PG and PG-13 films, Heavy Metal will make PG-13 and R-rated films. The goal is to develop live action movies, in the vein of Avatar, not animated films. Says Krelitz: “It’ll be a series of films leading into a Heavy Metal movie, with another series of films leading into a another Heavy Metal movie.”
Grant Morrison is a past-his-prime creator who has in the past shown great sympathy for corporate properties at the expense of the creators themselves. (The original point was made by Matt Seneca, who apparently deleted his blog a while back, which I either missed or forgot at some point.) I would seriously suggest that any creator, veteran or new, take a close look at any contract they might be offered by the company going forward.

So this is Morrison completing the career arc that began when he accepted a pseudo-editorial position at DC, finally stepping behind the lines to become The Man, an editor, fully committed to getting his pals on board to create original IP for a burgeoning content farm explicitly styling itself in the mold of Marvel Entertainment - only "for adults." Morrison built a pretty good Brand, and it works for him because he's become what he always wanted to be: a marketable meme ready to be consumed by unsuspecting customers eager to take a ride with a talented showman.

Punk rock? Actually, yeah, pretty much.