Friday, May 29, 2009
Wores, I wouldn't want to show many of the storylines to kids if they were interested. Identity Crisis was great, but do I really want a child to read about Dr. Light raping Enlongated Man's wife? Or Green Arrow stabbing Deathstroke in the eye?
There's an interesting paradox in modern comics: On average, they are better written and better drawn than they were when I was a kid. At the same time, they just aren't as fun as they once were. Maybe it's just me... perhaps my "sense o' wonder" meter got broken when I turned 40. On the other hand, lately I have gone back and read some of the comics from the seventies, and I do spot some things that I think made comics better back then.
1: You got a LOT more story out of each issue. Comic books these days are very cinematic. A character can spend five pages just putting on his costume. You spend a few more pages of him dealing with friends and family, adding depth to the character. Before you know it you're down to only a page or two where the hero and villians can smack each other around, assuming you get there at all. In the seventies, things moved. Somebody was crashing through a wall by at least the third page. The Justice League could split up in a single issue and travel to the age of dinosaurs, Saturn, the 35th century, the Rock of Eternity, Smallville, and Atlantis and still wrap up all the plot lines by page 17. Seriously, the pacing is just headspinning. Most books today just move too slow.
2: You actually had new characters and villians showing up. Today, it seems like the majority of "new" heroes are actually reboots of old heroes. One surprise when you read Superman from the seventies is that Lex Luthor doesn't show up every issue. There are a lot of one shot villians. Batman can actually go a whole year without fighting the Joker. The storylines today overuse the same core characters. The characters are more trapped in their never-ending battles today than they were back then, even though comics were just as dedicated to returning to the status quo.
3: I know that this is going to sound dumb, but better writing has created worse comic books. I consider myself a pretty good writer, and feel like I have fairly high expectations of the novels I read and the movies I watch. I like depth of characters, I like thought-provoking plots, I like events that forever change characters and force them to contront hard moral choices. I think you can find these same elements in most modern comics. Today, if you get a writer on a comic book who is also a novelist (say, Orson Scott Card on Iron Man) he's going to bring to that comic book the writing aesthetics he's learned from novels. He'll spend a lot of time establishing motives for all the characters. He'll build a plot slowly and plausibly, nailing down every element and action so that it feels real. The science will be well researched and have at least some nod toward actual facts. Over the course of six issues or so, the novelist turned comic-book author will manage to tell a story that will present you with a smart, solid tale that will make you think.
When the story is collected as a graphic novel, it's a good tale. Unfortunately, when it's appearing in monthly installments, seventeen pages at a time, any given issuie is actually sort of... boring. (I'm not picking on Card here, by the way. I've seen this with almost all novelists turned comic book writers.) You pay four bucks to pick up a comic book, but you don't get a story for your four bucks, you get a fragment of a story, and it's just not that satisfying.
In the seventies, the depth of motivations for a supervillian was usually along the lines of, "Well, I've got this freeze-ray, and my mama sewed me this costume... why shouldn't I rob a bank today? What are the odds of the Flash showing up AGAIN?" And when the Flash would show up, he'd trap the villian inside a giant birdcage that just happened to be nearby at the giant birdcage museum, because, you know, you find these things in big cities. The moral dilema of the issue would be whether or not he should sign autographs for the cops afterwards or rush off to keep his date with Iris. It writing wasn't deep, and it wasn't sophisticated, the science made you roll your eyes, but, somehow, it also wasn't boring.
In the seventies, comic books were written by people who understood they were writing comic books. They had a set number of pages to fill, month after month after month, and each month had to cram in a story. To meet their deadlines, they would throw in the wierdest crap you can imagine, and explain it with the flimsiest of logic. You wound up with 17 pages of strange wonder. Today, comic books are being written by people who write excellent novels, televisions, and movies... but who don't know squat about comic books, where a single issue is the most important unit of story. Today, any given issue of a comic is just a fragment of a larger graphic novel. Who wants to spend 4 bucks on a chapter when you can wait and buy the whole story line for half the price of buying it chapter by chapter?
If novelists want to write about superheroes, they should... in novels. In the mean time, the industry should go and find a bunch of hacks who turn out stories quick and dirty, in hope of recapturing the lost formula that made comics great.
Or, perhaps looking to the past is the wrong approach, and it's time to fully embrace evolution. Blasphemy of blashemies, maybe it's time for the comic book to disappear. Instead of publishing monthly issues of Batman and Spiderman, the publishers can release two or three graphic novels per year. I think you'd wind up with even better graphic novels as a result, because you'd finally be acknowledging that this is the artform that is actually being published.
Friday, May 22, 2009
A few months ago, I launched my "Ten Reasons to Believe in God, or Why I am an Atheist" series. I think at this point, I've tackled six of the reasons. Below is the original list, hyperlinked to relevant posts:
- Argument from design (life is just too complex to have arisen randomly... AKA the watch in the beach argument).
- Documentary evidence (various holy texts) Note: This links to the same post, but my argument against the documentary evidence is in the comment section in two long posts down near the end. I'll consolodate all this into an actual essay eventually. Right now, I'd rather tackle fresh topics than rehash stuff I've already covered.)
- Eyewitness testimony (plenty of people have talked to God directly) Note: Again, this is an argument I made in the comments section of the linked post.
- The Super Alien hypothesis (All the attributes of God can be plausibly imagined and explained by SF authors so... why not?)
- The God Shaped Hole (Something in the human psyche needs God. Why would this be if there was nothing there to fill that need?) I haven 't tackled this one in a coherent fashion yet. Stay tuned.
- The Master Plan (Life is too full of meaningful coincidence not to think there isn't a guiding intelligence behind it.)
- The Unthinkable Alternative (We must believe in God because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Take God away and we'll all be cannibals inside of fifteen minutes.)
- Pascal's wager (You have more to gain by believing in God than you do by believing in no-God.) See below.
- Respect for tradition (My father, my grandfather, my greatgrandfather, etc. all believed in God and it worked out great for them. Why disrespect a winning formula?) See below.
- Just because. Nyah! (When all else fails, you can't argue with faith.) See below.
The last three arguments are, to my mind, the closest things to strawmen I included on my list. But, what can I say? I was struggling to fill out my list due to some strange cultural need to put every concievable topic into lists of ten. And, these are actual arguments I've encountered over the years; it's not like I'm just making them up to shoot them down.
Pascal's Wager: This is an agument made by the philosopher Pascal that, even though the existence of God can't be proven, you should live as if it's true, because you have everything to gain if it is true, and nothing to lose if it's false. If you believe in God and there is a God, presumably you go to heaven. If you believe in God and there is no God, you die and that's it. If you don't believe and there is a God, you go to hell. If you don't believe and there is no God, you die and that's it. Only the first of the four possible outcomes has a good conclusion, so you'd be an idiot not to shoot for it.
Plenty of people have tackled this argument, so forgive me if this is mostly a rehash of stuff you've heard before. The first argument is: Which God? You can't simultaniously believe in the God of Islam, the God of Christianity, the Hindu dieties, the Great Spirit, and Xemu. Pascal made his argument immersed in a culture of Christianity. Today, we know that the proposed choices are many: Choosing one faith may lead to your damnation in another faith. The argument fails because God isn't a single definable quality.
The second argument can boil down to: "If God is real, he's not an idiot." If you don't really believe, but act as if you do because you think it might lead to a reward, presumably, He'll know. Acting as if you believe when you don't really believe is just hypocricy, and Jesus specifically had no time to waste on hypocrits. Maybe Marduk is more forgiving.
So, we move on to the next argument: Respect for tradition. I honestly feel that this is the dominant reason for belief in God. Your parents believe in God. They take you to church where you are taught about God. Your extended family shares the same beliefs, and the friends you make in church form the foundation of your social circle. There's a very strong need for people to be part of their group. Many faiths have traditions of shunning members who wander. The consequences of formally leaving a faith can be devastating. An atheist who was formerly Mormon or Jehovah's witness might find themselves given the cold shoulder at family reunions... a fundamentalist Muslim might find himself beheaded at a family reunion. Peer pressure doesn't stop in high school.
Of course, this isn't just the negative argument: Stray and you will be punished. There's also the positive argument: You respect your parents and grandparents, and they made a pretty good life as devout Baptists, or Catholics, or Wiccans. You witness your father going out and doing something charitable--taking Christmas hams to the poor, maybe--and he tells you that he's doing it because the Bible says it's a good thing to care for those less fortunate. You've seen good people who credit their goodness to faith in God, and you want to be a good person. The virtues of your role models leads you to emulate their faith.
This is a tough argument to refute because it's not so much an argument as it is an ingrained human cultural behavior. Christian parents give birth to babies who are most likely to grow up as Christians. Buddhists give birth to future Buddhists. So it has been and so it shall be. If religion were really something people spent a lot of time thinking about, it seems like we'd see a lot more mixing of faiths within nations and families. And, to America's credit, we do see a lot of mixing. We are simply exposed to more faiths than our forefathers were. And, the more faiths you encounter, the harder it is to feel like your ancestors had a lock on the Holy Truth. Sure, you saw your parents delivering Christmas hams and learned that Christians are charitable. But, later, you go and help build a house with Habitat for Humanity and you find you're working beside a tattooed lesbian Buddhist who drives nails in a single strike and seems to really be happy with her place in the universe.
The most effective argument against "Respect for Tradition" is that a person paying any attention at all to the world will quickly come to realize there are hundreds of different traditions that are worthy of respect. Are all these charitable acts drawn from all these different traditions? Or is there something more fundamental at work? If you strip away all religion, would you find that humans would still be charitable? Might the good behaviors of humans be attributed to their humanity, rather than to divinity?
Which brings us, at last, to number 10: You can't argue with faith. Nyah! Long time readers of my blog know about my relationship with Laura Herrmann, who died of breast cancer three years ago. Laura believed in God. She wasn't a Christian, she didn't pray, but she felt, deep down, that there was some force in the world that gave meaning to everything. There was no name for her god, other than God. There was no religion. She just believed in a "guiding force." Someone was watching the light at the end of the tunnel.
Once she got sick, I certainly wasn't going to argue with her faith. She took comfort from it; it was a source of strength. But, early on the relationship, I'd talk a lot about my beliefs and would ask her to expand on her beliefs, and her whole argument was, essentially, "It's just what I feel." It is, perhaps, the ultimate argument ender. You can't really tell people that they aren't feeling what they are feeling, or that a feeling they may have is right or wrong. You can of course argue that people have their facts wrong, but Laura's argument was free of all facts. It was pure feeling. It was her hunch, and she was sticking with it.
I've argued in a previous post that my atheism is mostly an act of faith. You can intellectually refute all the factual claims made by various religions, but you can't actually prove the non-existance of an amorphous, undefinable God. So, to make that last leap from agnosticism to atheism is, for me, a leap of faith.
Before it sounds as if I'm in full retreat in the face of argument 10, let me make a counterargument. It may be fruitless and unrewarding to argue with the faith of others, but I personally find it to be highly rewarding to argue with my own faith. It may look to the casual reader like I've compiled this list of arguments for believing in God only to shoot them down and make myself feel more smug in my atheistic triumph. The truth is much more complex: I actually go out of my way to discover new arguments for God and against atheism because I enjoy testing what I feel. Laura may have been satisfied simply believing, but I like putting my brain into gear and grinding away at questions that may, ultimately, have no answers. I actually am excited by the possibility that I may discover that some of my fundamental assumptions are wrong.
By constantly questioning and challenging my own assumptions, I think I gain a few things. First, I believe I learn empathy by trying on the thoughts of others. I may not believe their arguments for believing in God, but I can see where they're coming from. I don't walk around assuming that the faithful are all deluded fools blind to the truth; I assume they have reasons for believing what they believe. Second, I find that spending hours thinking about this stuff is good for my creative life. My novel Dragonseed (coming soon!) is driven thematically by how much faith people should have in their leaders, and what paths one can follow to discern what is true. (Plotwise, it's driven by dragons biting people and people stabbing dragons. Also, dragons biting dragons and people stabbing people. In other bits, dragons stab dragons and people bite people. It's a work with many, many facets.) Anyone could make up a fictional world and fill it with heroes and monsters. What makes my novels interesting (I hope) are the thousand sleepless nights I've spent tossing and turning as I contemplate God and the Absense of God.
So, yes, you can argue, "this is just what I believe, so shut up," and I'll leave you alone. But I'm here to testify that beliefs you can examine and argue possess their own rewards.
At least, that's what I feel.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
This is just the latest response to the increasingly popular notion that Christianity is under attack by the government, despite all evidence to the contrary. I am unaware of a single church in America that was surrounded by armed policemen this morning preventing people from going inside. Christians enjoy the same rights that I do to print their own newspapers and books, to rent billboards and advertise their spiritual products, and even to go door to door and spread the good news. The few restrictions that are in place are restrictions placed on the government, not the citizens. The principal of a school, as a representative of the government, cannot go on the intercom each morning and read the Bible to all the students in the school. But, that same principal, as a private citizen, is free to read the bible out loud to anyone in earshot when he's not serving in his official capacity. The man can be Christian, but the office can't.
This seems like splitting hairs to a lot of Christians. But, the "America is a Christian nation" crowd seems, to me, to be a little unclear on what, exactly, the central tenents of Christianity are. From a theological standpoint, can a government even be Christian? Does a government have a soul that can stand before the Lord on Judgment Day? Does a nation? Or does it all come down to individuals? It seems to me that the concept of group salvation is specifically dismissed in the scriptures. The notion that a nation can be Christian is as spiritually meaningless as the idea that a cat can be Christian.
The central dogma of Christianity is summed up in good ol' John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, and whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life." The contract between God and man in the New Testament isn't a group contract. In the old testament, the pact was between God and a collective nation or race. But in the New Testament, being a Christian is a contract between God and a specific individual. Your salvation doesn't depend on the actions of your neighbors. If you live in the heart of, say, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and your neighbor to the left is a lesbian wiccan who dances around naked in the pentagram in her backyard during full moons, and your neighbor to the right is a full-blown radical communist atheist with a hammer and sickle tattoo on his bicept, and the family across the street has just moved in from some country you can't pronounce, and you aren't sure exactly what their religion is, but it seems to involve doing horrible things to chickens... it doesn't matter to God. When the rapture comes, God isn't going to pass you by because he doesn't approve of your neighbors. All he cares about is whether you're a "whosoever."
I suspect I would get much less frustrated with the more vocal proponents of Christianity on the right if they would show some glimmer of understanding of their own religion. It matters not one whit to Jesus if America is a Christian nation. Nations aren't the functional spiritual unit that he cares about. They are doing nothing to advance the work of Jesus by introducing these bills. If these congressmen really want to spread the gospel, I'd like to suggest they've chosen the wrong profession. They might be more effective evangelists as preachers or missionaries. Their attempts to legislate Christianity into the hearts of their fellow citizens is just sad. If someone can give me even one good reason why they should be wasting a dime of their tax-paid salaries worrying about this, I'd love to hear it.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Lake Mattamuskeet, a big honkin' lake